Student Well-Being Q&A

What Is Driving Youth Mental Health Problems? It’s Not Just About Social Media

By Arianna Prothero — November 29, 2023 3 min read
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Social media is getting a lot of the blame for the sobering state of youth mental health.

And that perception isn’t totally off base. There is research, including from social media companies, showing that the platforms can harm the wellbeing of school age kids.

But it’s oversimplifying the issue to say that social media is the root cause of youth mental health problems, say experts such as Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Hoover and others argue that fixating on just one variable, such as social media, as the cause of mental health problems is counterproductive.

In fact, educators and students aren’t even in agreement over what is hurting their mental health. In an October survey by the EdWeek Research Center, teachers, principals, and district leaders listed online bullying as the number one stressor for their students. But students listed schoolwork and homework as the most likely challenge to have a negative impact on their mental health.

In a recent conversation with Education Week, Hoover, who is also a co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, explained why adults tend to focus on social media-related causes of mental health problems and what other factors educators should be attuned to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Teens and educators have different opinions on what’s affecting youth mental health. What are we missing in the national dialogue?

It doesn’t mean that one’s right and one is wrong.

Sharon Hoover

People see things through a different lens. Some adults might be more keen to identify something that they didn’t experience as a stressor when they were growing up. There’s a quick assumption that the increase in mental health concerns must be related to something new to this generation.

I don’t think it’s completely unfounded, though. The data does suggest that, yes, there are harms that come with exposure to social media, especially certain types of social media like passive utilization where you’re just scrolling and looking at photos and kind of doing a comparative analysis of your life to others. Versus what teens may be more attuned to, which is active use of social media where they are actually finding the benefits, like communicating with others, building social networks.

Adults may be less attuned to, maybe more so even educators, the stressors related to grades and homework and those academic pressures.

What is the problem with overemphasizing one reason for students’ mental health problems over others?

We end up losing sight of the myriad factors that contribute to youth mental health. Then, as a result, maybe overinvest in solutions in one siloed space that can really shape policies and funding. That’s dangerous if we’re focusing on one area, neglecting the others when we know there’s not just one factor that impacts youth mental health. So that’s one big one.

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Teenage girl sitting on floor at school
E+ / Getty

The other piece is that sometimes when we do this, when we look to blame one thing, social media or homework, we end up with all-or-none solutions that don’t really recognize the complexity of each of these [issues]. So, for social media, there is harm caused by certain types of exposure, but there’s also benefits.

The pandemic was certainly harmful to students’ mental health. What else could be contributing to declining mental health among kids and teens?

So, nutrition and its impact on just physical health, including hormones. Sleep hygiene we know is a huge predictor of mental health and wellbeing, and sleep hygiene is notoriously poor in our adolescents.

Living in poverty, housing insecurity and food insecurity, that obviously impacts mental health. So, if we ignore that and just say it’s all social media, that’s a problem. People will say, ‘well, poverty’s always been there,’ but we know that more young people are exposed to housing and food insecurity than ever before since the pandemic.

There’s also grief and loss. You know, [at least] 140,000 students lost a parent or primary caregiver during COVID. When you’ve lost that primary figure, you’re going be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress and depression and anxiety.

Not to ignore also some of the more systemic issues—what do you want to call it? Political divisiveness or just the tenor of the nation right now. A lot of people will say that’s contributing to an overall decrease in wellbeing among the general population. When you’ve got people who are at odds with each other, it feels like it’s less of a safe climate for people, especially minoritized individuals who are contending with systemic racism. So, lots of factors.

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