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New Research Shows Kids' Mental Health Tied to Online Experiences

Healthy digital ecosystems support mental health for young people on their post-pandemic road to recovery.

March 2021 marks one year since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the course of the last 12 months, supporting students in the transition to remote learning has been a major concern for both parents and teachers. Now, as we help young people recover from the pandemic and slowly begin the return to normal, supporting their mental health is more vital than ever.

Common Sense's newest research report, Coping with COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health, explores the role of media and technology in amplifying or ameliorating feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety in teens and young adults. We learned that social media and other online tools have been a lifeline for young adults during the pandemic. But at the same time, hate speech and misinformation abound, and for those young people who are struggling with moderate to severe depression, the impact of that content can make these feelings worse. A healthy digital ecosystem is critical for supporting mental health. Platforms and companies can and should design digital tools and products with kids' well-being top of mind.

Here's how we can get there:

Platforms should promote health, not hate

It is imperative that platforms stop exploiting their users for profit, and start acting in the best interest of their users and the public. Although 43% of young social media users say social media makes them feel better when they're depressed, stressed, or anxious, we also know that the percentage of teens who say they "often" see racist content in social media has nearly doubled in the past two years. Hate speech is generally aimed at populations who are already vulnerable, and it can exacerbate negative health outcomes. Tech companies know they have a responsibility to do much more to protect young people, but they often just don't do it. Social media is an essential way young people escape from reality and communicate with their peers, but when something goes wrong, platforms rarely resolve issues in transparent ways that give kids confidence that their concerns are heard.

Policymakers can help ensure that companies address the detrimental elements of social platforms. The KIDS Act and the DETOUR Act, for example, would prevent the use of manipulative and damaging design features that keep kids glued to the screen. The KIDS Act would also prohibit platforms from targeting harmful content to kids.

Access to the internet can be critical for mental health

The digital divide is more than just a homework gap. It's a health care access gap as well: Seventy percent of teens and young adults say they rely on social media for information on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, and more than eight in 10 (85%) have looked for health information online, with depression, stress, and anxiety among the top topics searched.

Our research into the digital divide uncovered that 16 million students in the United States lack the proper connection or devices to participate fully in remote learning, but it's clear that connecting to vital mental health services, especially during the pandemic, is equally important.

Common Sense helped to secure $7 billion in the American Rescue Plan to ensure that all kids and teachers have adequate connectivity and devices at home. This is a critical short-term solution, but now we need to invest in broadband infrastructure to close the digital divide for good.

Young people's privacy matters

As we see more teens and young adults (85%) access health information and have highly sensitive conversations online, ensuring tech tools are appropriately protecting privacy is more critical than ever. Services should be clear about whether health privacy laws apply, and even if they do not, services should not share user information with third parties or use it to target ads. Lawmakers should support the passage of a comprehensive privacy law that provides a strong floor, and ensure special protections for vulnerable children and teens by updating COPPA with COPPA 2.0 and/or the PRIVCY Act.

Social media's impact is complex

Finally, the impact of social media on teen and young adult mental health continues to be extremely nuanced, especially for those who already report symptoms of moderate to severe depression: This group is nearly twice as likely as those without depression to say they use social media almost constantly, and the proportion who say social media is "very" important for getting support or advice when they need it has more than doubled in the past two years. At the same time, they're more likely than those without these symptoms to say social media adds to their depression, stress, or anxiety.

We need more research to better understand the impact of social media not just on the most vulnerable, but on all kids. The federal CAMRA Act would establish a longitudinal research program on the impact that media and technology have on child and adolescent health and development. At the same time, digital citizenship resources in classrooms, like those pioneered by Common Sense Education, can empower young people to help create the communities they want to see online, and provide tools and resources for responding to problematic content.

There's no doubt virtual spaces played an important role in getting kids and parents through the lockdowns. As we begin to think about the other side of this pandemic, it is important to use lessons learned to help change the digital environment for the better. Our new research gives us great insight and understanding into how to do that, and we owe it to young people to make it happen.

Ariel Fox Johnson
Ariel Fox Johnson is Senior Counsel for Global Policy at Common Sense Media, where she advocates for smart practices, policies, and rules to help all kids thrive in today’s wired world. Her work focuses on enhancing family privacy rights, strengthening students' educational privacy, and promoting robust consumer protections in the online world. She frequently advises policymakers, industry, and tech experts, and has helped develop laws on student privacy, consumer privacy, and the Internet of Things. Ariel is a graduate of Harvard College and Law School. Prior to joining Common Sense, Ariel worked on privacy, media, intellectual property, and technology matters at corporate law firms, and provided pro bono assistance to nonprofits and asylum seekers.