“A Dangerous Substance”: the impact of social media on youth mental health

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The teenager on the other end of the phone struggles with social media, struggles with body shaming and feelings of inadequacy, struggles with depression and anxiety. Since age 10 or 11, when she first started dancing with a youth ballet company, she would pull up Instagram and fixate on other dancers—looking at their bodies, comparing them with hers.

At night, after getting home from dance sessions, she’d take a shower, lie in bed with her phone, and scroll, scroll, scroll.

“I would be scrolling for hours—like an hour, two hours, looking at what these other girls could do and their bodies, and comparing them to me. I can’t do that. I don’t look like that,” says the teenager, who’s now 18.

Over the phone, she comes across as smart, candid, articulate, and direct, her bright soprano digging hard and deep into every question asked. She does not hold back. She does not want to hold back. After all she’s been through, she wants people to hear and understand.

This is what social media does, she says. It draws people in. It hurts people. In the worst cases, it kills people. It killed one of her close friends from grade school, a boy who was bullied so horribly, so repeatedly, in person and online, that he took his own life. The final blow, she says, was a happy portrait of himself with his family that he had posted one day.

The bullies piled on. One told him to go kill himself.

He did.

She learned the news at school. “They had an announcement saying that they were extremely sorry, but one of our former classmates had passed away due to suicide,” she says. “And the people who made fun of him—the same people who had posted these things about him—they were posting about how sorry they were for him and his family, and how much they always loved him.”

“I took a step away from social media at that point,” she says.

The young dancer’s story—at her request and her father’s, she’ll remain anonymous—illustrates both the lure and harms of social media, which has been drawing more and more attention of late for its ubiquity, its addictiveness, its corporate habits, and its role in the youth mental health crisis.

Every other day, it seems, some new article appears on declines in child and adolescent wellbeing and spikes in suicide attempts and self-harm. Every other day comes a story or a study pointing to the negative influence of online habits. In a recent batch of articles, new research from China shows the negative impact of screen time on kindergartners, with non-educational content linked with worse mental-health problems, and new research from South Korea shows a link between suicide and excessive phone use in teenagers. There are stories about school efforts to silence public displays of grief, about the impact of online racism on Black teens, about a disproportionate rise in suicidal ideation among Black youth, about the persistent popularity of social media among youths despite the documented risks.

Potential positives alongside the negatives

In the midst of all this, the conversation surrounding social media and youth mental health is a whirlwind of data and competing theories.

Many voices, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy among them, have denounced its impact on child and teen mental health and pointed to it as a significant factor in the dramatic, continuing increases in depression and suicidality among adolescents.

As the executive summary from his recent advisory on the topic states:

“Those who spend more than 3 hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is deeply concerning as a recent survey of teenagers showed that, on average, they spend 3.5 hours a day on social media.”

Other voices, trying to dial things down, have suggested the plunge in teen well-being predates the rise in social media and point to other potential causes. They also point to a discrepancy in the impact on teens: some respond better, some respond worse. Social platforms can—in certain contexts, for certain teenagers—play a positive role, at least sometimes, as exhibited in research suggesting that young people from marginalized backgrounds benefit socially and mentally from “critical media literacy” skills that allow them to build online social support while avoiding harmful content. Even Murthy’s advisory cites this difference in impact, saying, “Social media can provide benefits for some children, including by serving as a source of connection for youth who are often marginalized, such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.”

Or, as Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in a recent piece for The Atlantic:

“Compelling evidence suggests that social-media platforms are contributing to the crisis, but it’s also true that the horror stories and the headlines have gotten out in front of the science, which is not as settled as many would think. A decade of work and hundreds of studies have produced a mixture of results, in part because they’ve used a mixture of methods and in part because they’re trying to get at something elusive and complicated. Rather than coalescing into a unified message that social-media use is an awful, indisputably destructive force—tobacco with a “Like” button—the research instead has been building toward a more nuanced, and perhaps more intuitive, takeaway.

Social media’s effects seem to depend a lot on the person using it. It may play a different role for different demographics, and the role it plays may also change for people at different stages of life. It surely doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.”

And yet, for a significant slice of the teen population, the negatives can be overwhelming. Bullying is nothing new in the realm of pre-teen and teenage dynamics—except that these days, public shaming is 24/7 and often tragically unavoidable. With smartphones in so many children’s pockets, cyberbullying prevails around the clock. And the younger the child, the rougher the impact. Particularly for girls.

According to a new study from Sapien Labs, 74% of girls who acquired their first smartphone at age 6 scored as “distressed or struggling” range on its Mental Health Quotient:

“This decreased to 61% for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 10, and 52% for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 15. Altogether, even among those who acquired their first smartphone at age 18, 46% were still mentally distressed or struggling. This high percentage of distress compares to less than 14% of those age 45 and older who grew up and lived much of their younger adult life prior to Internet ubiquity.”

Specifically, it notes: “Problems with suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others, a sense of being detached from reality and hallucinations declined most steeply and significantly with older age of first smartphone ownership for females, and for males as well, but to a lesser degree.”

Reducing time in the real world, and empowering bullies

If indeed screentime is a significant factor in the youth mental health crisis, the question is: Why? How does it work? What does it do?

For starters: It reduces the amount of time young people spend in the real world, immersed in real social interactions. According to a recent survey of American adolescents, American teens reporting daily (or almost) in-person get-togethers plunged from 44 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2022. And as study after study shows, a deficit in face-to-face social interaction can have significant negative effects on their mental health.

Second: It disrupts sleep, with the hours on social media or video games at bedtime contributing to chronic deprivation in tweens and teens and prompting or worsening bouts of anxiety or depression.

Third: It feeds into the epidemic of self-diagnosis raging across the internet, particularly among teenage girls, and particularly on TikTok with its “sick-role subculture.”

Fourth: It empowers bullies, giving them a platform with wide reach and few controls. As described by the young dancer at the beginning of the story, engagement on social media encourages bullying, shaming, and comparisons with others—their bodies, their lives—in ways that are much harder to escape than in pre-Internet, pre-smartphone eras, back when abusive behaviors were mostly limited to in-person interactions. The ugly dynamics at play on social media were once limited to middle-school lunchrooms and bus rides home. They were escapable. Now, they’re everywhere.

Fifth: It’s potentially addictive. In two books by psychologist Nicholas Kardaras—Glow Kids and Digital Madness—the author explores this addicting nature of screentime, the research indicating its often devastating harms, and the cultural habits that promote and compound them. As he asserts in Glow Kids: “Video games for the alienated kid and social media for the cheerleader are both just as addicting as heroin is to a junkie. With every burst of virtual gunfire, every text and tweet, there is a release—a little squirt—of dopamine, just as surely as cocaine tickles our dopamine neurotransmitters.”

Kardaras quotes researchers who described such media as “electronic heroin”—and in subsequent interviews, he called it “digital heroin.” In Digital Madness, he addresses his own history of heroin addiction and recovery from a coma, and delves into the “social comparison effect” as particularly harmful. “The dynamic whereby comparing ourselves to a continuous stream of ‘my life is great’ content may make a person feel ‘hey, maybe my life isn’t so hot after all.’” He continues:

“That’s why so-called social influencers mainly influence people to feel bad about themselves—and it’s why Instagram drives up suicidal thoughts and self-loathing. Imagine a poor, lost teen without a strong sense of identity and lacking genuine social supports, staring at glam Kim Kardashian Instagram photos all day. Or someone, recently divorced and alone, staring at their Facebook newsfeed and seeing a neverending stream of one happy family vacation photo after another from all their friends. In both instances, we can see how the effect can exacerbate the feelings of emptiness and despair—of ‘my life is a failure.’”

Such constant comparisons, combined with isolation, sedentary lifestyles, and other habits, “are the ingredients of our modern madness, a madness fueled by social media that’s driving our record spike in adverse mental health outcomes.”

A virtual addiction to digital heroin

Kardaras isn’t alone in such objections. Just ask those who’ve made their careers helping children.

“Kids literally get addicted,” says a longtime speech pathologist who works with toddlers on the spectrum and chooses, like several others interviewed for this story, to remain anonymous.

One child she saw “watched TV all day. He liked the bright lights. He liked the changes he saw. He was very visually stimulated—and you know, when we tried to unaddict him, it was very, very hard.” Bit by bit, they turned the light of the screen and the sound down—“slowly, slowly.” But hitting a point where he wasn’t drinking in the stimulation, “He would freak out. And we weren’t about to take away his drug. I mean, that would have been horrible, you know. He was literally addicted.”

Yes, she says, some screen time involves educational tools—teaching shapes, language, and the like. But the hours spent immersed and seduced by flickering images doesn’t promote development in children, not the way real-world engagement does.

“What they need now is to apply, and explore, and to socialize.” But too many parents don’t comprehend the distracting power of screens to pull children away from what they need most. “Well-meaning and loving parents get their kids addicted. . . . They just don’t realize it. They just don’t realize it. They’re busy.”

Kids’ brains are plastic, she says. They can learn. But they need to play. They need social interaction. They need movement. They need time in nature, she adds, noting Richard Louv’s Last Child in The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

“I have one kid that is just so unregulated, and I say to the parents, ‘You gotta take him outside and run him around, you know?” As a speech pathologist, “I do a lot of movement. . . . Movement is often what motivates them to talk. They want to be picked up,” she says. They want to bolt, play, have fun. “They want you to chase them, you know?”

All of this is familiar to Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist based in British Columbia. She wrote her own book on the topic, Virtual Child: The Terrifying Truth about what Technology is Doing to Children, and offers webinars designed to promote healthier habits for adults and kids both.

Cris Rowan

The way she sees it, screen time—now at an average of eight hours a day for children—deprives them of four fundamental, formative experiences: movement; touch; social connection; and nature.

As Rowan explains in a phone interview: “As an occupational therapist, I look at the systems surrounding a child. I look at five areas. I look at physical, social, mental, emotional, and cognitive when I am trying to represent what kids need to grow and succeed.” For that to happen, they “have to be doing things in those five domains.”

Time spent on screens affects all five categories—and shrinks time spent on all four types of experiences, which lead to physical coordination, emotional regulation, literacy, and a host of other factors that are critical to learning and active, social, healthy development. Both touch and exposure to nature, for instance, help activate the parasympathetic nervous system that calms stress hormones. Results of too much screen time, she says, can include problems with physical coordination, speech, and cognition; sleep deprivation; social phobias; and a failure to attach (or a decline in attachment) with parents.

In a follow-up email, she emphasizes the “brain-pruning process that happens with excessive screen time.” The brain, she says, “is like a muscle, use it or you lose it. Mindless media content, found in video games, social media, and pornography, doesn’t require frontal lobe function. Consequently, we are seeing atrophy in the frontal lobes” of children spending hours a day “on mindless content.”

And one last thought, she says: Look at the recent research demonstrating a higher risk of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and depression for adults who use computers extensively or watch more TV. “This has immense significance when we think of children’s developing brains,” Rowan observes. If older adults can get dementia from too much screen time, “can you imagine what is happening to children?”

Adults are addicted, too

Decades ago, Rowan’s own son became addicted to early video games (PongTetris) on a Commodore 64, spending more and more time on them and becoming less and less social. “I felt like I was losing my son. ‘Where’s Matt? Where’d Matt go? Where’s that nice little boy that would talk to me?’” Eventually she cracked down, tossed the box, made him do chores, and encouraged him to invite all of his friends over to the house. He got better.

But that was around 30 years ago. These days, screens are more ubiquitous, and the temptations are worse.

One problem is adults themselves are addicted to screens; another problem is the automatic reliance on phones to help sooth younger and younger children. Children as young as “six months old have cell phones in their hands. So we’re teaching the child to regulate their energy state with the device, not with the parent.” The result, she says, is “virtual autism,” a term coined by Romanian psychologist Marius Zamfir to describe the phenomenon of children diagnosed on the spectrum who spend hours a day on screens.

Rowan points to research conducted by Andrew Doan for the U.S. military that explores addictive online gaming, internet pornography use, and the physical and mental harms induced by both. In one article from 2015, he examined three cases of U.S. Marines who reported insomnia after playing video games from 30 to 60 hours per week, and exhibited “symptoms of blunted affect, low mood, poor concentration, inability to focus, irritability, and drowsiness.”

In another article from the same year, zeroing in on children and adolescents, he and his co-authors reviewed the scantly researched “Internet Gaming Disorder” (a term described by the American Psychiatric Association as a “potential diagnosis”) and make a range of recommendations for clinicians and parents, from ensuring children “have ample media-free time and access to non-gaming creative play opportunities” to “agreeing to a set duration before starting play and providing a visible timer for both parent and child to monitor use.”

Further: “At all ages, it is recommended that media not be located in the bedroom and that video game play not begin within half an hour before sleep time.” It also cites a study showing that parental monitoring and limits on social media use can have a protective effect in a range of contexts.

But by and large, despite all of this, Rowan says people remain grievously unaware. She’s working hard to raise awareness, arguing for the removal of cell phones from schools—which is getting some traction. She’s also been pushing the “weight of evidence” showing harms, as she outlined in an article listing 66 specific negative effects on children. And a brochure she wrote, “Social Media is NOT Social and NOT Safe,” has been widely distributed and reportedly reached President Biden. So, word is getting out there, she says.

All the same, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge such evidence. People make excuses, saying screens make things easier, or say it’s the parents who make choices for their kids.

“Why is nobody waking up to this? Well, because they’re addicted themselves,” Rowan says. Using Kardaras’ term, she describes screens as “a dangerous substance. They’re an addictive substance. You’ve heard the term ‘digital heroin’: It’s very harmful for children, but it’s also harmful for adults as well.”

And yet they use it. This is the paradoxical relationship many youths—for that matter, many people—have with social media. They dislike its toxic qualities, they see the harm it does to others, they know firsthand the damage it can wreak.

In short, they hate it. But they use it. Parents see the effects on their children. Young people see it in themselves.

“Social media sucks!”

A young woman says this. She’s light-haired, sharp-eyed, and standing with a clutch of three friends in their early 20s at the Sound Mind Festival in Brooklyn earlier this year. “Social media,” she says, “is the worst thing ever.”

“Strong agree!” says a second young woman.

“I am on Instagram and TikTok, but it’s evil. Evil,” says the first young woman. “For the brain. It’s a brain-killer. . . . It’s just, like, so toxic.”

There’s an edge to her voice as she says this, her dark observation tinged with self-awareness.

A third young woman, chiming in, says social media “promises connection—but it kind of, maybe, fails in that way. I think it promises that, but often makes someone feel more isolated.”

No one in the group wants to share their names or any other information. Nope. Too risky to put their real lives out there. But they are all on social media, and they all perceive—quite clearly, described with that same grim tinge to their voices—its risks and harms. They know because they’re on it, and they’re not getting off anytime soon. The first young woman would be an influencer, if she could—just for the income. “It seems like the easiest gig,” she says, putting it bluntly.

But at what cost, she wonders. Look at all the girls trying to be the next Alix Earle, TikTok’s ubiquitous “It Girl.” “She’s rolling in the dough—and all these girls, they’re trying to emulate an unattainable standard,” she says. “Effed. Up.”

Still, she’s hooked. She’s not about to get off TikTok or Instagram anytime soon.

“I’m addicted to the drug,” she says, that sardonic edge once again audible, and everyone laughs. Including her.

Grieving parents have their say

According to critics, including former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who testified before Congress in 2021, social media giants like Meta (which owns Instagram and Facebook) knew about social media’s potential toxicity from the get-go. They understood the addictive qualities, the harms for teens and younger kids, the propensity for and encouragement of bullying, without properly instituting safeguards—all accusations made in lawsuits filed across the country by school districts and states, including 41 filed against Meta by attorneys general. The first was filed by Seattle Public Schools in January of 2023. As it stated in its announcement:

“By marketing to and targeting young people, the companies who own these social media platforms have created digital environments that can negatively affect the mental and emotional health of our students.

We believe that the companies should be held responsible for their actions and the harm they are causing by contributing to the increasing costs that school districts now bear in response to the increasing mental and emotional health needs of students.”

Along with the rash of lawsuits, certain states are also pushing forward with safeguards and even bans on social media use for children and teens: recently, Florida lawmakers advanced a bill that would prohibit youths younger than 16 from using such platforms and, at the same time, require all users to verify their age. Echoing Kardaras’ coinage with an even deadlier analogy, Republican state legislator and bill co-sponsor Fiona McFarland described the dopamine triggered by social media (in remarks quoted by Politico) as “so addictive, it’s like a digital fentanyl. And even the most plugged-in parent or attuned teen has a hard time shutting the door against these addictive features.”

In March of last year, Utah became the first state to institute such a ban, requiring parental consent restricting minors from social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Again, age verification is now required before anyone in the state can engage on social media. Additional states are also pressing for age verification and parental involvement, although such state efforts are inspiring blowback from tech companies; Meta has already issued a loud objection to the Florida measure, and similar bans and safeguards have been held up by tech-industry measures in Ohio, Arkansas, and California as well as Utah.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a bill dubbed the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) calls for safeguards and “reasonable measures in the design and operation of products or services used by minors to prevent and mitigate certain harms that may arise from that use (e.g., sexual exploitation and online bullying).”

Co-sponsored by senators Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal and discussed in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in late January, the bill calls for social media platforms to allow for the restricting of access to minors’ personal data and provide “parents or guardians with tools to supervise minors’ use of a platform.” Other strictures outlined in the bill include refraining from “facilitating advertising of age-restricted products or services (e.g., tobacco and gambling) to minors.”

Shortly before the hearing, the committee released internal 2021 emails from Meta documenting the rejection by CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives of efforts to make the platforms safer for kids. At the three-and-a-half hour hearing itself, senators heatedly criticized him and other tech execs from TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), Snap, and Discord before a crowd that included bereaved individuals holding pictures of their children lost to social media harms.

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 31: Brandy and Toney Roberts hold a picture of their daughter Englyn, 14, who died by suicide after watching a hanging simulation video on Instagram, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” in Dirksen building on Wednesday, January 31, 2024. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

At one point, Zuckerberg stood and turned toward the gathering of observers behind him. He apologized to the grieving parents among them, saying: “I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” and adding, “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”

Many such parents belong to groups advocating for KOSA, including Parents for Safe Online Spaces (ParentsSOS), an educational initiative created by 20 families who lost children to some form of online harm. Among them are those who died by suicide after being cyberbullied or “sextorted”—i.e., threatened with the posting of explicit images. The group’s website features a page filled with children’s and teens’ smiling photos and tragic stories, which include quotations from their devastated parents.

“Social media companies have run amok, leaving a trail of death through an entire generation of Americans,” says one mom, Amy Neville, whose son Alexander overdosed after someone on Snapchat sold him oxycontin laced with enough fentanyl to kill four adults.

Says another, Christine McComas, whose daughter took her own life after being cyberbullied and threatened on Twitter, then further bullied by kids in school: “Grace should still be here, and I believe she would be had she not been abused over social media or if there had been some way to make it stop.”

A catalyst that increases the effects of depression

For the young dancer who lost her childhood friend to bullying and suicide, none of this is an abstract topic of debate. All of this is real, and it’s hard. So are her own struggles to get out of bed, some days. “I’m very open to talking about this, because there needs to be more awareness,” she says.

For years she’s grappled with depression, anxiety, a bipolar diagnosis, suicidality, two occasions when she came close to an attempt, and five hospitalizations. Through all of that, social media has only exacerbated her self-doubts. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed and face anyone in the real world, she says. And when she does, it can derail her.

The teenager’s father, who also opts for anonymity—“I’m just a father of a child with depression”—is profoundly concerned about his daughter.

“You know, as the kids get to 8, 9 years old, they all want smartphones. And the text messages—to me, that should have been an early warning sign that maybe that stuff is too much for a child of her age. But I relented. And her mother relented. And we soldiered on. But she gets into her fifth, sixth, seventh grades, getting into junior high and the social media part of it”—combined with the stressors and sense of competition associated with dancing, it all got worse. Starting ballet with a school that emphasized “stick-figure type” bodies exacerbated everything.

“When the girls got into junior high, the social media part of it and all of that started to come around, it was bad. I mean, really bad. You know, the things these girls would say,” says the father. “And you know, when I was younger, somebody would pass a note around.” It was horrible, but limited. Nowadays, “Something like this happens, the whole school knows.”

Regarding social media, the dad says, “I’m not saying it causes depression. I’m only saying it amplifies it. It’s a catalyst. You know, just like you learned in chemistry class: A catalyst will increase the effect of things.”

“There’s so much screen time,” he adds. “There’s Snapchat, and TikTok, and Instagram, and shit, whatever else there is. . . . The lines between the real world and the cyberworld are blurred.” Sometimes, he says, she’s up in her bedroom for hours. And if he takes the phone away? “It’s world war.”

From his daughter’s point of view, as much as she dislikes social media, she can’t let go. That break she took following her friend’s suicide didn’t last long. She’s still on it, still looking at other girls’ bodies, whether they’re in ballet or not. Still feeling less-than.

“It has not changed,” she says. “There’s still a lot of judgment every time I look in the mirror.”

“He wanted to die”

There, again, is the hard truth—and the conundrum. Kids, teens, their parents, others: everyone understands the dangers of social media, seeing its impact on themselves and their loved ones. Ideally, those most affected can just shut down their devices, swearing off screen time and replacing it with real-world engagement.

But the reality is different. Consider the case of another child, a Northern California boy who started gaming around age 5. By age 10, in his last year in elementary school, he was having “major breakdowns.” Around age 11, obsessed with the video game Super Smash Bros., he made it to one of the highest levels before being defeated. “He cried, cried, cried. And then he was saying he was a failure, he no longer wanted to live any more, he wanted to die — for five and a half hours, saying things like that. . . . It was very, very scary.”

That’s his mom is on the phone. She agreed to speak after responding to a query on Facebook, and she has a lot to say—about her son’s struggles, the allure of gaming, the difficulties in their family after his breakdown. Her husband had grappled with depression himself. “My husband was like that, and now my son was like that,” she says.

Her son is 19 now. All those years ago, when he first fell apart, she threw away the video game, “and he cried and cried.” In the next couple of years, between withdrawal from the game and school stress, he continued to struggle—suffering panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. A year or two after the Super Smash Bros. meltdown, says the mom, “My son’s middle school called the mobile unit because my son said that he wanted to kill himself at the school. So they had two people with the mobile unit asking him, ‘Do you have a plan? Do you have a weapon?’ Fortunately, my son said ‘no,’ otherwise he would have been taken away.”

In his last year of middle school, he started inching back to normal as his mom adopted alternative parental practices. He’s in a better place now. A freshman at a university close to home, he’s more mature. Less glued to the screen. But he’s still gaming, she says. A few years ago, after discussing with her husband and negotiating limits with their son, they gave him another copy of Super Smash Bros. for his birthday. He only plays an hour a day, and that’s it.

There’s no way out of it, she says. Video games are “highly addictive.” That’s how they’re designed. “I’m still worried, because I have no idea what he and his friends—what kind of video games they play. . . . If something’s wrong, I’m going to ask questions and all that, but he’s older. He knows what is right, and what is not right, and everything is fine for now.”

Safe spaces on the one hand, cyberbullying on the other

In short, there’s no easy cure. Eliminating all screen time is virtually impossible; a more harm-reduction approach scaling back the number of hours can help, but even that isn’t exactly simple in an age when not just socializing but many aspects of education and employment occur in virtual spaces, especially since the pandemic. This very article, after all, was written on a Chromebook built to open windows in a zillion directions—to be published on a website built for readers in the virtual realm. As the California mom says, she used Mad in America to search for alternative resources and approaches in helping her son.

So screen time isn’t always evil. The Internet has the potential for good, making knowledge and history and insights and art and music and science available to anyone with access to the web. In many cases it can also build community, connecting those across the world in meaningful ways—something else that came to the fore during the pandemic.

As a school counselor on a Reddit board articulated in response to a query, “It really is a balancing act in terms of social media and mental health right? On one hand it can absolutely ruin students and their whole week. Yet, on the other hand, it can provide safe spaces and amazing representation for them. I have seen many students leave the high school I am at simply because of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying gets to a point where they mentally cannot take it.”

At the same time, “This is how students make connections with other peers just like them. A lot of my students find some social media to be safe spaces to discuss issues of mental health. . . . After COVID it became extremely difficult for students to reach out to peers in person because it was not a normalized experience for them.”

Looking ahead, the young dancer’s dad is worried but hopeful. “Whatever she does, she’s going to set the world on fire.” He’s proud of her. He believes in her. “She’s pushing through this, and she’s still fighting. I tell her, ‘You come from a long line of hard-headed people, and you keep on going.’” In an email following their initial interviews, dad offers this update: She’s started teaching ballet to kids aged 4-12, he says. “She is extremely talented. And thrilled to share her love of dance.”

On the phone from Texas that day, she answers the bluntest of questions with that same bright voice, that same, well-spoken candor. “Mostly I am in a better place, but it’s still a struggle—because each time I get in a good place, I don’t see myself staying there for a while,” she says. “So it’s a constant fear of ‘Something’s gonna happen, and things are gonna get back to the way they were.’”

When it comes to social media, should there be age limits? Should there be controls and restrictions? The dancer thinks so.

“Honestly,” she says, “for the young who are growing up, not even 10 years old, on social media and then looking at these girls”—comparing their bodies, feeling less-than—“is heartbreaking to me. So I really do feel like there should be some kind of age restriction, because I was one of those girls. And it’s taken me six years to even come to the realization that none of it is real.”

Beyond that: Across the board, there needs to be a careful and consistent monitoring of content that gets posted. That, she says, is critical. From her perspective, potentially life-saving. It might have saved her childhood friend.

“Social media should really keep in touch with what people are posting and saying. Because two or three days before someone who I’ve grown up with passed away, people were posting these things about him, telling him to go kill himself,” she says.

“And he did.”

 

 

Editor’s Note: Part of MITUK’s core mission is to present a scientific critique of the existing paradigm of care. Each week we will be republishing Mad in America’s latest blog on the evidence supporting the need for radical change.

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Amy Biancolli is a staff reporter for Mad in America. A journalist with decades of experience writing about the arts, culture, film and other topics for the Albany Times Union, the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, she's also the author of three books—two of them memoirs of loss and grief. Her most recent, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival (2014, Behler Publications), is an account of the year following the suicide of her husband, author Christopher D. Ringwald. She's a graduate of Hamilton College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.