An illustration of a brain with different colors
Hi there,

Life sure does move fast. One moment, you’re a hip young person on Instagram, rolling your eyes at all of the media hand-wringing about how social media is bad for the youth; then you blink, and suddenly the internet is overrun with eleven-year-olds talking about something called “skibidi toilet,” and you realize that now you are the one writing pearl-clutching newsletters about whether or not the kids are alright. 

But, like… are they alright? Are we sure?? Has anyone checked on them???

From my new vantage as a recently minted1 Adult™, I can suddenly understand why we’ve spent the past fifteen years writing endless op-eds about the dangers of social media. As an outsider to today’s youth internet culture, it’s easy to see all the potential harms of these platforms (Mental illness! Fake news! Children eating Tide PODS®!) and none of the potential benefits. But what does the evidence say?

Mainstream news coverage tends to sensationalize the dangers of social media. But more often than you may realize, these claims don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. When it comes to social media, it can be tricky to discern where the evidence ends and the moral panic begins. 

So does that mean social media is totally harmless? Well, no, obviously not. There’s just more nuance to them than meets the eye. As a recent report from the Surgeon General indicates, social media has potential harms and benefits for young people. We all have our own unique relationships to social media platforms, and more research is needed to understand the complexities here.

In today’s newsletter, we’re taking a very brief look at the behavioral science, identifying a few of the actual risks that social media poses to young people—and some ways we can help mitigate them. 

Until next time,
Katie and the old-timers @ TDL

  1. Technically this wasn't recent at all, but it still feels recent, you know? 

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Today’s topics 👀
📱 The (Real) Risks of Social Media for Youth
🌐 Field Notes: Mental Health Online
🧒 Building Better Platforms 
📱 The (Real) Risks of Social Media for Youth

As researchers continue to study the effects of social media on young people, here are a few things we can say with confidence: 

      • They encourage unhealthy habits with tech. By now, we all know about how social media is designed to be addictive. The “stickiness” of these platforms can be an obstacle to establishing more productive behaviors: when young people are feeling down, behaviors like dissociating on their phones might become band-aid solutions, distracting them from developing stronger coping skills or sticking to a healthy routine (e.g. sleeping at a consistent time).
      • They often reduce life satisfaction. As the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. One study found that social media usage predicts lower life satisfaction among teenage boys and girls. It’s also possible that the profit-driven landscape of social media, shaped by ads and brand partnerships, might direct some young people’s attention and aspirations disproportionately toward consumerist pursuits (e.g. following all the latest clothing trends) and away from content that might facilitate more holistic self-discovery and identity development.
      • They violate our privacy. By now, we all pretty much know that corporations have mountains of data on us. But that lack of true privacy is especially detrimental for kids and teenagers, who are still figuring out who they are. We still don’t know about the long-term consequences of such pervasive surveillance on young people: what does it mean to grow up knowing that you’re pretty much always being watched?  
🌐 FIELD NOTES: Mental Health Online

Social media platforms can be invaluable sources of information and connection for young people struggling with their mental health. But as we all know all too well, they can also spread unhelpful misinformation. 

How can we use behavioral design to guard against these negative outcomes? TDL Managing Director Sekoul Krastev & former intern Triumph Kerins wrote a blog about exactly this challenge. Check it out on the TDL site.

A collection of social media platform logos rendered in 3D.
🧒 Building Better Platforms 

Like it or not, social media is deeply interwoven into the fabric of daily life—and it’s here to stay. So how can we ensure that these platforms aren’t inflicting harm on young people? Here are just a few suggestions: 

      • Leave the moralizing at the door. A lot of our social media discourse is undeniably judgy: we look down our noses at the TikTok teens and roll our eyes at the latest Instagram fads. But these aren’t useful responses. Gen Z is doing their best in the world that was handed to them, and it’s not their fault that said world happens to be heavily shaped by social media. When adults are dismissive of the valid reasons why young people use social media, it stands in the way of more productive conversations about the ways these platforms affect us.  
      • Engage young people in the policymaking process. As many commentators have pointed out, the people making decisions about how to regulate social media don’t really “get” it. To craft policy that actually supports young people’s best interests, youth should be given a seat at the table.
      • Center youth's rights in platform design. We often overlook the rights of minors, treating young people as if they’re not quite fully-fledged humans yet. A children’s rights approach would foreground the rights of youth to privacy and data security, balancing these concerns with children’s rights to free expression and play. 
      • Empower young people to use technology intentionally and responsibly. Kids are more mature than we give them credit for! Instead of just talking about tech's influence on young people, we need to start having more conversations with them. If you have youngsters in your life, talk to them about the dangers and the benefits of social media. Listen to their perspectives while gently offering your own. Also try to model more mindful social media usage around them, so they can see what healthy engagement with tech looks like.
A series of bar graphs indicating how many Canadians cite social media usage as having a negative effect on their sleep, concentration, and exercise habits.
According to data from Statistics Canada, young people (15–24) cite social media as a much greater negative influence on their sleep and concentration than older groups. (Source)
Salience Bias

The kind of content that thrives on social media isn't necessarily representative of the world at large: it tends to be more polarized, more ostentatious, more bombastic. This can give us a false picture of reality, emphasizing certain narratives and viewpoints over others. Read more about it on our website.

What’s new at TDL

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include:

      • Consultant (MX)
      • Product Designer

    Find out more by visiting our careers portal

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