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Is social media Utah’s scapegoat for poor teen mental health?

FILE - The TikTok logo is seen on a cell phone on Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston. On Dec. 12, 2022, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order banning TikTok on all state-owned electronic devices under the executive branch.
Michael Dwyer
AP, file
FILE - The TikTok logo is seen on a cell phone on Oct. 14, 2022, in Boston. On Dec. 12, 2022, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order banning TikTok on all state-owned electronic devices under the executive branch.

Social media companies are in the hot seat with Utah’s state government.

Gov. Spencer Cox plans to sue social media companies for the harm he said they’ve done to Utah youth.

“We have to put some things into place to make a change,” Cox told reporters in mid-February. “I suspect that 10 years from now, we'll look back on this the way we look back on opioids, the way we look back on tobacco use and just say, ‘What were we thinking? I can't believe we did this to our kids.’”

Cox has also signaled a willingness to sign anything legislators can get to his desk that holds those social media companies accountable. With only a few days left in the legislative session, there are currently two bills that aim to regulate social media with children in mind.

Republican Sen. Mike McKell has put forward a bill, SB152, that would require social media companies to get a parent’s consent before a minor can open an account. To make the case for regulation, he cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that shows nearly 60% of teen girls feel “persistently sad or hopeless.” It also finds that about 1 in 5 teens have seriously considered suicide.

“I hope this bill puts a dent in the issue,” McKell told the Senate on Feb. 15. “We've got a lot of issues we need to deal with — with mental health. But I think social media, it's clear, has been a factor.”

Sarah Coyne, a family life professor at Brigham Young University, has been studying the effects of media on children and families for more than 20 years. She said the research on how much social media impacts teens is mixed. While some research shows a correlation between time spent on social media and mental health, other studies find very weak or nonexistent links.

She said social media is an easy target when people are worried about how teens are feeling.

“Social media companies that make billions of dollars a year are an easy scapegoat,” Coyne said. “It's really easy to cast them in the role of the villain without paying attention to the complexities and the nuance and really some of the positive benefits that social media can bring to adolescents.”

Coyne is concerned about this – a recent study of hers looked at the impact parental restrictions on social media have on teens. Coyne found that kids with higher restrictions placed on them had higher rates of depression, anxiety and worse body image.

Another bill, HB311, would prohibit minors from entering into contracts with social media companies. It would also bar those companies from using features that they know could get a minor addicted to social media, among other things.

Republican floor sponsor Sen. Kirk Cullimore told the Senate on Feb. 16 that the idea was to “empower parents to safeguard children, fight back against addictive algorithms and hold social media companies responsible for damages.”

While Coyne likes the idea of limiting access to advertisements for children, she doesn’t see algorithms as entirely bad.

“Let's say that the algorithm is suggesting body positive content or mental health resources or some really positive things,” she said. “By simply saying, ‘OK, we're not going to use them at all,’ I wonder if we're missing an opportunity to help kids that are really struggling with certain things.”

Overall, Coyne said the bills are the wrong approach to help struggling teens.

“All of the bills aim to limit exposure or to restrict [access] based on time or content on social media,” she said. “And what research suggests is that when we have high restrictions and high limitations, teens find a way to access it anyway, and also they actually have worse mental health.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ciara Hulet: While social media has taken a lot of blame, what is the positive side to letting teens access social media?

Sarah Coyne: There is a tremendous amount of research suggesting that social media represents a way for adolescents to connect and to find belonging. This is particularly true for adolescents who feel like they're in the minority or who are marginalized. There's all sorts of research for LGBTQ youth. Let's say you're the only trans kid in the school, and you’re getting picked on and your parents don’t understand you. But you can find that space to belong on social media. What we know is that when teens feel like they have spaces to belong, their suicidality decreases substantially

CH: Are you concerned that teens might feel they’ve lost a safe space if parents are required to give consent to sign up? 

SC: I have two concerns with the parental consent. First of all, some parents might just not give consent at all, thinking that ‘social media equals bad’ without recognizing the profound good that it can be, especially for kids who are most at risk, frankly. The second one, and this is in Mike McKell’s bill, is it says that by law, parents have access to absolutely everything that their child does on social media. So if I'm a kid feeling really abused in my house, I'm feeling rejected because of, say, my gender or sexual identity, and I know that my parent can access [the social media account] at any time by law, I might be less likely to actually engage in the process, and I might feel more alone than ever.

CH: Is there an answer when it comes to teens and social media?

SC: Utah should invest in a widespread education strategy with the intent to empower and also educate teens on how to use social media and their phones in ways that improve their mental health as opposed to hurt it. We know from the research that there's all sorts of things that they can do that actually make them feel less depressed, less anxious when on social media. However, we're not teaching adolescents those skills. And so in effect, what we're doing is we're saying [that] we're just going to watch as parents or we're going to limit it until you're age 18. And then, “Here you go. Good luck with the world.” As opposed to really training them in the ways that they can use digital media in ways to enhance their lives for good.

CH: How can teens have better experiences on social media?

SC: [It comes down to] active versus passive use on social media. Passive use is when you're just scrolling and scrolling. That tends to be related to negative outcomes for adolescents. But we know when adolescents use their social media in active ways, when they're posting themselves, when they're commenting on other people's posts, especially supportive things — even if just a simple like or direct message — we know that's associated with actually less depression and anxiety. If we can just get adolescents to be using social media in active ways and especially in kind and supportive ones, we may see a decrease in mental health struggles among adolescents in Utah.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
Emily Pohlsander is the Morning Edition Producer and graduated with a journalism degree from Missouri State University. She has worked for newspapers in Missouri and North Carolina.
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