SAN DIEGO, Calif. — After a year of missed milestones, isolation, and uncertainty, we’re getting a better sense of the pandemic’s mental health toll on young people.
“During the pandemic, they've oftentimes turned to social media as a positive outlet to relieve anxiety. Yet, at the same time, there's no question; the data is clear that young people who spend a lot of time on social media are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety and other mental health disorders," said James P. Steyer, founder, and CEO of Common Sense Media.
The organization helps families navigate the complex media landscape, rating movies, television shows, video games, and websites. Schools across the country are also using their digital citizenship curriculum.
In partnership with Hopelab and the California Health Care Foundation, they've released a new report: Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health.
They surveyed young adults age 14 to 22, examining how they're leveraging social media and digital tools to support their mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. They compared the data to a survey done in 2018.
“The single biggest reflection of this is that essentially 40 percent of teens and young adults say that they're either moderately or severely depressed during the pandemic. That is an astronomical figure," said Steyer.
That figure was up from 25 percent from the 2018 study.
“This new research report makes it clear that our kids, particularly teens and young adults, are really suffering.”
The rates of depression for LGBTQ+ youth were even higher, with 65 percent reporting symptoms, up from 31 percent in 2018.
The survey found young people have also been exposed to more hate speech. About 1 in 4 people, ages14 to 22, say they often encounter body shaming (29%), racist (27%), sexist (26%), or homophobic (23%) comments on social media.
"I see words that are very much blanket statements about the LGBTQ community, really any specifically like minority community, and it makes me angry," said 23-year-old Adriana Allman, who identifies as queer.
Allman says she's had a love, hate relationship with social media since age 15.
“I was a dancer my entire life," said Allman. "And then I went to college, and naturally, I decided to study dance. But while I was there, I fell out of love with it.”
The realization eroded her self-confidence and identity; Allman was later diagnosed with depression and took time off of school.
“I went on it [social media] as a way to distract myself from the pain and the confusion I was feeling inside from really having this lack of identity,” she said.
While she ultimately found support and a community, this unhealthy relationship with social media was amplified during the pandemic.
“The pandemic was the catalyst for me to change the way that I interact with social media," said Allman. “It was a matter of unfollowing the people who didn't serve me and then going out and seeking spaces of the Internet corners that I felt seen and that could give me something beneficial for my own well-being.”
“Technology and media play a very complicated role in young people's lives," said Steyer. “The problems on those platforms have magnified during the pandemic, and they need to be held accountable for the content on their platform.”
His organization has long urged social media companies to do a better job moderating content.
“I was pretty surprised at the levels of depression among teens and young adults," said Vicky Rideout, a children’s media researcher and author of the Coping with COVID-19 study.
Rideout says the internet has also been a lifeline for many young people struggling with depression.
"Social media is really important to them for things like feeling less alone, staying connected, getting inspiration from other people, getting support and advice," said Rideout.
Rideout says young people were far more likely to say social media makes them feel better when feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious.
"And while we don't want to rely just on how young people think something is affecting them, their voice is really important to be heard," said Rideout.
The survey was conducted in September, October, and November of 2020.
"We made extensive use of open-ended questions, so items where we asked young people to tell us in their own words what their experience with something had been or why they use social media in a particular way," said Rideout. “We won’t get anywhere in addressing adolescent depression if we don't acknowledge the complexities of it and the complexities of the role of technology in young people's lives now.”
The survey also found 8 out of 10 young people turned to online resources for health information and support.
"When it comes to teens, social media, and mental health, one size does not fit all. You have to have an understanding of what young people are doing with social media and how it makes them feel," said Rideout.
“All of us have gone through an experience, a shared experience that has transformed our lives in our society," said Steyer. “I think for parents and educators, the number one thing you have to do is have an ongoing dialogue and open communication with your children and remind them that it's OK not to be OK.”