Does New Research Really Reveal Social Media Isn’t Harmful?

Posted on: 01/23/20 12:37 PM | by Jonathan McKee

A few days ago the New York Times released an article titled, Panicking about Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t. The subtitle reads, “A growing number of academics are challenging assumptions about the negative effects of social media and smartphones on children.”

So does this article hold water?

I mean, “panicking” definitely doesn’t sound like the answer, but is it true that this new research is revealing social media might not have so many negative effects? What about all the solid research that too much time screen time and social media is linked to the recent spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems? Have researchers like Dr. Jean Twenge overreacted with their assertions that we need to start protecting our kids?

Let me first say, don’t let one article set your opinion in cement. I doubt many people would go to a debate, hear one side, then get up and leave. And in this case, I encourage you to hear out Dr. Jean Twenge’s clear rebuttal to that particular NY Times article linked above, because her research is sound!

And allow me to humbly insert my opinion on the matter… and I’ll be brief (because you should spend most your time reading Dr. Twenge’s response).

1. The New York Times article is right in that parents should not panic. Panicking is never the answer. Instead, parents need to turn their overreaction into interaction, dialoguing with their kids about what responsible screen use looks like. But that’s about the only thing the article got right…

2. Parents, teachers and youth workers on the front lines with teenagers would overwhelmingly laugh at the New York Times article because we all see the effects of screen time and social media on young people every day. For example, the pressure to get likes and followers. Why would Instagram’s CEO Adam Mosseri test “hiding likes” in 7 different countries to help “create a less pressurized environment” for young people? This is a real issue with real consequences.

3. The New York Times article ignored so many studies instead, offering weak arguments that Dr. Twenge addresses head on (again, read Dr. Twenge’s response). But the NY Times article also attempts to appeal to common sense about this new research, and honestly, makes their case even worse. For example. The article makes the following point about one of the researcher’s new findings: (referring to this new research that social media is not very harmful at all)

Her own mother questioned her research after one of her grandsons stopped talking to her during the long drives she used to enjoy. But children tuning out their elders when they become teenagers is hardly a new trend, she said.

That’s it. That’s her reasoning. “Hey, do you think kids are tuning us out because of their screens? That’s nothing new.”

Really? That’s all you got?  

Sorry NY Times, but this is something new. This is the reason school administrators book me to come train their teachers and parents… screens are becoming a huge distraction! It’s unprecedented. Phones are becoming one of the biggest distractions in the classroom and at home. And parents aren’t modeling any better.

4. Then the article goes on to mention a couple positive uses of screen time (something I do all the time in my workshops), but uses those examples as justification that somehow screens can’t be that harmful after all. Again…. I’m scratching my head at their reasoning. Someone needs to take Debate 101.

Bottom line: yes, screens can be used for good (I texted my out-of-state daughter this morning, then played worship music from a Spotify playlist), but this doesn’t negate the consequences, and doesn’t mean we continue to just hand out kids screens and hope for the best.

Parents don’t need to panic, but they need to consider the ramifications of handing their kid a screen, in the same way they wouldn’t just hand their 12-year-old the keys to the car. Kids need loving, reasonable, healthy limits (simple rules like, “Sorry, you’re not going to have your screen in your bedroom all night”) that teach them media discernment.

Kudos to Dr. Twenge for doing the research on this vital matter.