Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the NYU Stern School of Business and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, has been reading the research for years and has become one of the best-known commentators on the subject. He maintains a massive public Google Doc in which he collects, sorts, and analyzes all of the papers pertaining to the question of whether social media contributes to the rise of depression and anxiety in teenagers. Haidt agrees with Orben and other researchers that findings on screen time tend to be mixed. “But if you make it ‘social media,’ it’s very consistent,” he told me. “The next question is, what’s the population? Are we talking about all kids, or are we talking about girls?” In his review of all available work, including the data that Orben and Przybylski analyzed in 2019, he found a positive correlation between depression and anxiety and social-media use for teenage girls (depression and anxiety go up when social-media use goes up). “No person in their right mind would let their daughter be engaged in an activity” with such a clear connection to depression and anxiety, he said.
At this point, scientists at least agree that the relationship between depression and anxiety and social-media use is supported by enough evidence to demand attention. Orben’s latest paper argues for greater attention on young girls as well, showing a relationship between social-media use and a decline in different forms of life satisfaction. The question is: What kind of attention should we be paying? “If the correlations are worse for girls, then that’s really important and good to know,” Hancock told me. “We need to talk about that, but I guarantee you that social media is not bad for all teenage girls all the time.”