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Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Students Think Social Media Is Fine, But Teachers See a Mental Health Minefield

By Arianna Prothero — March 25, 2024 8 min read
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Many adults—from teachers to the U.S. surgeon general—will tell you that social media has the potential to dangerously erode K-12 students’ mental health.

School districts and lawmakers alike have responded to the growing chorus of concern. More than 200 districts (and counting) have sued major social media companies while lawmakers at the federal and state levels have been crafting legislation that would greatly curtail youth access to social media.

But there’s one constituency that policymakers, educators, and parents may not be listening to enough: students.

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Brightly colored custom illustration showing a young male looking at a phone. His mind is being completely distorted in the process with a pixelated digital texture.
Taylor Callery for Education Week

Nearly three quarters of high school students say that social media either has no impact or a positive impact on their mental health and well-being, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey. Students who responded to the survey also point to many benefits arising from their social media use, such as making new friends, promoting creativity, and learning about other cultures and people.

The EdWeek Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,056 high school students in February and March.

That doesn’t mean all teens are having a positive experience—29 percent of high schoolers said social media has a negative impact.

Whatever adults may think of how kids view social media, experts say it’s important to understand teens’ perspectives in order to teach students the social-emotional and digital- and media-literacy skills they need to use these platforms in a productive and healthy way.

“Often the question [adults are always asking] is, ‘What is technology doing to young people?’” said Ioana Literat, an associate professor at Columbia University, Teachers College, and the associate director of the school’s Media and Social Change Lab. “I like to ask, ‘What are young people doing with technology?’”

The answer: Teenagers say they are doing a lot. Forty-one percent said they have used social media to make new friends or build positive friendships, according to EdWeek’s survey. Around a quarter have used social media to develop a hobby, acquire knowledge or skills related to what they’re studying in school, and gain a better understanding of what they want to pursue after high school.

‘Peer connection or peer support on social media’

Teens also say they have connected with mentors and developed their communication and entrepreneurial skills through social media.

Nearly 1 in 3 high schoolers in the EdWeek survey said that social media has made them feel less alone.

Social media can especially be a lifeline for certain groups of students, said Chelsea Olson, a research scientist in the University of Wisconsin—Madison’s pediatrics department and a member of the university’s Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team. LGBTQ+ youth, for example, are more likely to be bullied and struggle with depression and anxiety.

“And so, social media is a way that they can find community, they can connect with others, they can learn about themselves, they can seek resources online,” she said. “It could also be youth with chronic illnesses, especially illnesses that are rare or complicated. They might be able to go find others who are experiencing the same thing, getting that peer connection or peer support on social media, joining support groups, accessing information about their illness that they may not be able to find elsewhere.”

Even youth who are socially anxious can benefit from social media, Olson said, using it as a lower-stakes venue to practice social skills.

That’s not to say that teenagers’ social media experiences are all rosy. Nearly a quarter of high schoolers reported believing fake information they saw on social media and not getting enough sleep—the two most common answers when students were asked in the EdWeek Research Center survey about the negative consequences of their social media use.

Building a rapport with students to discuss the potential harm of social media

Understanding teens’ complicated relationship with social media is an important step to building a rapport with them that will allow educators to discuss the harm social media can cause, said Merve Lapus, the vice president of education outreach and engagement for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that provides curricula and ratings on technology and media.

“The more we try to push our perspective without trying to take theirs into account, the more you build a rift between you as an educator and the students,” he said. “As a teacher, if I can’t try to authentically connect with how my kids are thinking, then there’s no way I’m going to be able to get them to connect to the way I’m thinking.”

And educators’ thoughts on the issue are decidedly more negative than teens’. The overwhelming majority of educators in a separate EdWeek Research Center survey said that social media has had a negative impact on students’ mental health and self-esteem. The nationally representative survey polled 595 teachers, school leaders, and district leaders and was conducted Dec. 2023 to Jan. 2024.

Ninety-one percent of educators said social media has had a negative impact on how students treat people in real life.

Educators are also far more concerned than teenagers about how the content that high schoolers post on social media today could jeopardize their future employment. Eight in 10 educators are very or somewhat concerned while only 4 in 10 teens are.

A quarter of educators indicated in the survey that they could not think of any positive outcomes their students experienced as a result of using social media, compared with 14 percent of students in the student survey.

“The biggest challenge here is that young people, especially those in middle and high school, need both autonomy and guidance,” said Heather Schwartz, a practice specialist at the Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning, or CASEL, in an email interview. “They are more expert in social media than many of their teachers, and they do not respond well when they feel they are being talked down to.”

‘It’s just another day in 8th grade’

The fact that educators see social media as such a threat to students’ mental health fits historical trends, said Columbia’s Literat.

“Whenever there is a communications technology that has a huge social impact, there is a tendency to panic. Often when we see these moral panics, the objects of the panic are young people and women,” she said, while acknowledging that the enormous scope of social media means that any negative impact from its use will be far reaching for all ages and genders.

All of this isn’t to say that educators’ opinions on how social media affects kids are wrong, said Lapus. Teens may not fully understand how social media might be impacting their mental health and well-being.

“In general, [teens] don’t have a comparison,” he said. “Educators, parents, you know a time of what school was like [before social media] when all the same dramas occurred, but they didn’t follow you home in the same capacity they do now. That has major effects on your mental health. We can see that, but for them, it’s just another day in 8th grade.”

Where there is more agreement among educators and students on the issue of social media and mental health and well-being is educators’ roles in helping students learn to navigate the challenges. Majorities of both groups—65 percent of educators and 75 percent of students—think that teachers should be responsible for helping students learn how to use social media in ways that will support students’ mental health and well-being.

But only a little more than half the students reported in the survey that a teacher has ever discussed the topic with them.

One simple step to make things better

One simple step that educators—and all adults—can take to help promote healthier social media habits among the young people they interact with is to model good behavior, experts say. That means showing respect to others on social media, not using their cellphones during class, and not posting photos or information about students without their permission (or their parents’ permission).

But to really help students reap the benefits of social media while minimizing the harm, schools need to teach digital-literacy skills—such as understanding the addictive design features of social media—paired with social-emotional skills such as self-regulation, self-awareness, empathy, and relationship-building skills.

“Self-awareness includes understanding our own identities,” Schwartz said in an email interview. “Self-management includes agency, or a sense that what we do makes a difference. This also means understanding when something is getting under their skin, and pausing before responding.”

Just as students’ views on social media are nuanced, so, too, should educators’ approaches to discussing the platforms that have become an indispensable venue for teens’ communication, socialization, and identity-formation, experts emphasize.

For example, while it’s important for schools to teach social-emotional skills, educators should acknowledge that it’s not always easy for students to apply them in real life. Social media often creates a tension with the explicit SEL skills schools are teaching, said Emily Weinstein, the executive director of the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard University.

“It gets complicated when kids want to disconnect, but they have a friend who needs to talk: Their self-regulation and need for sleep, if it’s late at night, is pitted against their empathy,” said Weinstein. “It can be hard to figure this out in a world where you’re connected 24/7.”

The message educators should be driving home, said Lapus of Common Sense Media, is this: Yes, social media can be a positive force in students’ lives. But these platforms are also designed to override many of the social-emotional skills that help students protect their well-being, he said.

For instance, social media features such as the “like” button make it hard for users to exercise self-control, said Lapus, because they’re designed to keep users engaged on the app. “You see the number of likes and see people commenting, the impulse to not feel left out is real, and the ease of responding is built in by design.”

Teachers, he said, should encourage students to examine what’s important to them and how social media can help support those values. (For example, if family is important to a student, social media can help them stay connected with relatives who live far away.)

The goal, Lapus said, is to help students identify when social media isn’t serving their interests. “It’s up to you to be able to continue the cycle that’s helpful or break the cycle because it’s not giving you what you hope to get out of it,” he said.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2024 edition of Education Week as Kids Think Social Media Is Fine, But Teachers See a Mental Health Minefield

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