North Carolina Explores Strategies to Limit the Influence of Social Media on Anxiety

Did your smartphone make an appearance at the Thanksgiving table? Were you scrolling through Facebook or Instagram in between courses? Maybe you even took a selfie to commemorate the occasion?

As social media becomes increasingly prevalent in our lives, health experts are growing more concerned about its impact on adolescent mental health.

Eva Telzer, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill, addressed a committee of the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force, stating, “In the span of a generation, social media has dramatically changed the landscape of adolescents’ development around the clock.”

In the past, adolescents would interact with each other face-to-face. Nowadays, most of their social relationships occur through a screen.

Dr. Telzer explained, “Their posts are relatively permanent and public. Anyone can see them. They have this digital stress to be available around the clock.”

Social media has fundamentally transformed the experience of being an adolescent today.

According to a recent survey, 78% of 13- to 17-year-olds check their devices hourly, with 46% of them checking almost constantly.

Dr. Telzer highlighted the significant increase in social media use among adolescents over the past five years. In 2018, only 24% reported checking their devices almost constantly. This exponential growth requires careful consideration as it coincides with a crucial developmental phase of the adolescent brain.

During this period, the brain becomes highly responsive to social rewards while also learning to avoid social punishments.

Dr. Telzer warned, “Social media itself can fundamentally change the developing brain. And what’s even more concerning is that this is all happening at a developmental window when adolescents’ mental health disorders are beginning to show increases…”

Sam Hiner, a junior at UNC Chapel Hill, is advocating for legislative measures to regulate social media. Hiner, co-founder of the Young People’s Alliance, believes that the mental health crisis faced by youth needs to be addressed.

Hiner highlighted how innocently hovering over an image related to healthy eating can lead to a detrimental spiral. “Your feed on Instagram or TikTok…you’re seeing more content containing unrealistic body standards, pictures of insanely skinny models that are photoshopped, and unrealistic dieting standards,” he explained.

Hiner explained that the social media algorithm shapes users’ streams based on their behaviors and preferences. Unfortunately, this can lead to harmful content dominating their feeds.

This trend extends beyond body image concerns. Hiner mentioned that exposure to extreme political content can significantly affect one’s worldview, especially among his generation.

Constant exposure to such content can influence how teenagers and young adults perceive themselves.

According to NC Healthy Schools data, 1 in 10 children in North Carolina aged 3-17 has a diagnosis of anxiety or depression, and 1 in 5 seriously considered attempting suicide.

Hiner and the Young People’s Alliance are advocating for legislation that prevents the use of minors’ data in algorithms promoting content or targeted advertisements. Adult users would have the option to disable the use of their data.

The SMAC IT Act, introduced in May, gained bipartisan support with 62 co-sponsors. While House Bill 644 unanimously passed a House judiciary committee, it is currently awaiting review by the House Appropriations committee.

North Carolina’s Department of Justice is also investigating the impact of social media on children’s mental health and overall well-being.

In late October, Attorney General Josh Stein joined a multi-state lawsuit against Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, alleging that these platforms were knowingly harmful for children.

Recent court documents suggest that Meta collected minors’ data from Instagram without parental consent.

Whitney Belich, co-chair of the Intentional Death Prevention Committee, stressed the importance of addressing the negative influence of social media without delay.

Belich stated, “If we’re so concerned about getting help for these kids who need mental health treatment, we should be equally concerned with the things that are leading to them needing it.”

The committee plans to endorse legislation in 2024 that addresses addictive algorithms in social media.

For the current generation, Dr. Telzer advised parents to understand that social media is here to stay. She recommended following the guidance of the American Psychological Association and engaging in social media literacy. It is essential to communicate with adolescents about the potential dangers and how to identify misinformation and disinformation.

Dr. Telzer compared it to teaching adolescents to drive by providing them with the necessary training before handing them the keys.