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Social Media and Teen Depression – A Lesson in Statistics and Causality

I’m sure by now you’ve seen at least one, if not many, headlines making the claim that increased social media use by teens leads to depression.


But also, maybe not.

Take a listen to a podcast by Savvy Psychologist Jade Wu. In it, she takes a deeper look at the study and what it actually says, and comes up with some rather important caveats that probably weren’t mentioned in the article you read, or at least were definitely not mentioned in the headline you skimmed.

Things like:

1. The actual “increase” is tiny. This is something that often doesn’t get included in the reporting, and is something I think people tend to not understand. For example, if I study the number of people who do “x”, and end up with “y”, the number that gets reported is the increase, not the flat numbers. So, if 1 person out of 100 has “y”, and I run a test that shows that among people who do “x”, it’s actually 2 out of 100 that have “y”, the headlines will scream about a 100% increase. Are they wrong? No, going from 1 to 2 is doubling the number of people with “y”, and is a 100% increase. That seems really scary, like we should avoid doing “x” ALL the time, it’s the scariest thing ever! But the reality is there’s still only a 2% chance you’ll end up with “y”. 98% of the people in the study had no ill effects at all from doing “x”. So, if you want to decrease your chances of “y”, by all means don’t do “x”, but don’t go into a panic about it either, because it’s not a large difference, and also see #2.

2. There’s no proven link to show that increased social media use causes depression, just that kids who use social media more, are slightly, very slightly, more likely to also show signs of depression. The causality could actually be in the opposite direction, kids who are depressed use social media more, or it could be a factor that has nothing to do with either thing that was measured in this study. In fact, as she points out, people who experienced childhood trauma seem to spend more time online than people who didn’t. The fact that those people would also be more likely to be dealing with depression is not factored in to this study, but could explain why the small increase occurs.

In the end, Dr. Wu goes on to explain that it’s not nearly that simple. Social media use can be a problem for some people, and it can be a benefit to others. There is no clear answer as to what level is safe for you to allow your kids, because the causes of depression are much more likely to be something outside of social media use. On the other hand, if they are scrolling through Instagram comparing their life to the Kardashians, it’s probably not helping them either.

It’s also possible that they are actually benefiting from finding their online tribe, the group of people they share common interests and ideas with.

Social media is what it is. It’s a communication tool. Who we communicate with, and how we do so, is up to us as individuals. If you find using social media to have a draining effect on you, by all means, cut the amount of time you spend on it, or simply find better people to follow. 😉

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