In recent weeks, many have debated the relationship between social media and the mental illness epidemic in teenage girls. New data show that 57% of American teenage girls report persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% report having seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011). Jonathan Haidt argues that the relationship with social media use is not correlational; rather, social media exposes adolescents to damaging social comparisons and smartphones undermine play-based childhoods.
This raises questions of institutional functions and trajectories, consistent with the focus of this Substack. If social media is making teenage girls unhappy, why does usage persist? In his recent post, Haidt asserts that it has become a collective action problem. It would be better if all girls quit social media, but individual girls may not benefit from quitting, potentially becoming isolated from peer groups.
Collective action problems can persist. The famous tragedy of the commons, in which farmers over-grazed common land, characterized British agriculture for centuries. But if such phenomena endure, it suggests that benefits associated with the wider system outweigh costs; otherwise, systems would breakdown.
Therefore, the problem of social media and teenage girls necessitates reflection on its relationship to the wider system. As Nick Srnicek argues, we are living in an age of platform capitalism, platforms such as Google, Facebook and Uber providing the hardware and software on which others operate. Smartphones and social media are central to this mode of production. On one level, the economic power of these industries reduces the likelihood of effective regulation, teenagers being crucial to their businesses. Firms have well-rehearsed positions – Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, compares the risks of social media to cars - and oppose regulation.
On a deeper level, smartphones and social media are too embedded in the logic of platform capitalism. Smartphone use is quasi-universal, particularly among teenagers, reflecting the importance of smartphones to the platform economy. Aside from convenience, smartphones are central to the business models of several industries, making them ubiquitous. For teenagers, this entails near unlimited access to the internet and social media, the average teenager spending hours per day online.
This reduces the likelihood of effective regulation. Given the popularity of social media among teenagers (and many parents), regulation will face robust opposition. Many of us are addicted to smart phones and social media, making it more difficult to recognize and resolve the problem. Regulators will find it difficult to close every loophole. Definitions of social media are contested and, should legislators introduce regulation, creative firms will find ways around it.
We may reflect on trajectories and wider significance. Many analysts of capitalism are Marxists, entailing belief that systemic contradictions will result in collapse. I do not favour this analysis, Marxist predictions having a poor track record, yet internal tensions can undoubtedly destabilize systems, sometimes producing crises; institutional theorists call these endogenous ruptures.
It is easy to see how the crisis of social media and teenage girls might result in future instability. Damaged teenagers grow to be maladjusted adults, entailing future problems for Western societies. We do not know what these will be, but Haidt suggests there may be further polarization. Ominously, experiences in early life mark people profoundly.
Platform capitalism gets a bad press - social justice ideology, a worldview associated with the mode of production, is also associated with poor mental health – but must have compensating aspects. If these do not exist, why has platform capitalism emerged and persisted?
Apologists emphasize gains in productivity and innovation; perhaps such advantages offset damage to mental health. Alas, systemic benefits need not be human benefits. The pre-historic agricultural revolution reduced happiness – the comparative idle of the hunter gatherer was preferable to back-breaking labour - yet persisted because productivity was superior.
This is not an argument against regulation. Pollution is an inevitable product of industrialized societies, yet regulators have devised regulation which (to some extent) combats it. This may be the case with social media and teenagers. Authorities such as Haidt advocate regulation, such as higher age restrictions and proof of identity, and certain legislators are acting.
Crucially, parents and schools are becoming better attuned to this problem. I have two young daughters and, when the time comes, shall monitor their social media use carefully. Faced with an epochal challenge, what more can a parent do?
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I have a 17 year old daughter - the main social media she uses is Discord. Other than that - I have banned her from Tik Tok. She has an Insta account but like me she doesn’t like taking selfies or that kind of culture - so she doesn’t use it. The problem is not so much her, but - one of her friends totally changed after getting into that culture and she’s still sad about it (friend puts on pouty pictures of herself in skimpy clothes on Insta). I said to her - hopefully the friend will come out of it in her late teens. One reason we just got a dog is so that the kids are on screens less. But it got REALLY hard in lockdown - all our good intentions screwed up because it was screens, screens, screens, 12 hours a day for school etc. Had to be quite draconian to restore something approaching status quo ante.
Nice finale. Policy and regulations are poor substitutes for parental authority anyway. The people that pay the bills are in control and acting that way solves the problem; hand it over, kid, if you want any access at all. And, yes, nature. Books too. One of the basic issues of online addiction is the fracturing of attention spans, something that undermines sustained reading and therefore entails other toxic downstream effects.