In one of the biggest study on mental health and internet use, the Oxford Internet Institute states that there is no “smoking gun” linking the internet to psychological harm. Professors Andrew Przybylski and Matti Vuorre studied data from two million people aged 15 to 89 in 168 countries, finding that in the last two decades of increasing online connectivity, there are minor changes in global mental health.
These findings seem surprising, dismissing the dangers we have long associated with excessive use of social media. But the study itself admits that its findings are lacking, because the researchers did not have access to data from the platforms themselves. In a highly publicized report leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, Meta found that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.
“Teens blame Instagram for rising rates of anxiety and depression,” says an internal slide from the leaked study. “This reaction was not induced and was consistent across all groups.”
But even as Haugen leaked the study about Instagram and teenage girls’ body issues, Oxford’s Professor Przybylski questioned its legitimacy.
“Most of this work would not pass as a bachelor’s thesis,” he said told Business Insidercommented on the methodology behind these leaked reports, which used focus groups, surveys and interviews with users.
It is worth noting that Przybylski engaged in “unpaid consultations” with Meta. However, regarding his own study, he admits that “research on the subject is contested and hindered by methodological shortcomings, without knowing the wider consequences of the adoption of the Internet.”
With Meta’s own research, the company can track people’s responses to mental health surveys to their actual behavior on the platform, including how much time they spend on different Meta applications, and which what type of content do they include. This hard data is rarely available to academic researchers, who have campaigning with years for more transparency from the platforms.
The Oxford study recognized this error, even using its abstract to create a “calls for more collaborative efforts between independent scientists and the Internet technology sector.
In other words, researchers cannot fully understand the relationship between social media use and mental health without cooperation from social platforms. But why do these platforms expose themselves to possible scandals?
Since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, Meta has become more sophisticated in the way it provides access to research APIs. This month – coincidentally around the same time this Oxford study was published – Meta opened a new academic research API to early access, sharing some real-time data when how people use Facebook. However, to begin with, this API only shares text-based data, so it is impossible to conduct studies on multimedia posts, which constitute an important part of the platform. Of course, this also means Instagram is off the table, for now.
It has become such a hot issue that President Joe Biden has addressed the psychological impact of social media in his last two State of the Union addresses. Last month, 33 states sued Meta, accusing the company of violating state and federal laws while trying to keep young users on their platforms. Nine other attorneys general filed lawsuits in their own states. In an unredacted version of the lawsuit, evidence shows that Meta has been tracking the activity of users under the age of 13 for years. Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), it is illegal to collect data from internet users under the age of 13. On the books, Facebook’s own rules prohibit users from under 13 from signing.
Although internet use is increasing worldwide, social media is not a bad thing – in some cases, connecting with like-minded people from around the world can be a mental health benefit. This is especially true for young adults, the Trevor Project found. According to suicide prevention nonprofit research, 53% of young LGBTQ people report feeling safe and understood on TikTok.
Of course, Congress has also raised concerns about TikTok, as some officials have tried to ban the app from the US entirely. The main concerns about the app – legitimate or not – stem from its ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance. But the US government has also questioned TikTok over its addictive nature and ineffective tools for controlling teenagers’ time.
The Oxford study itself failed to reach a firm conclusion. In its final paragraph, it states, “Research on the effects of Internet technologies has stalled because the data most urgently needed are collected and kept behind closed doors by technology companies and online platform. (…) Until these data can be clearly analyzed for the benefit of the public, the potential harmful effects of the Internet and other digital environments will remain unknown.
So, can we assume from the study that the internet does not really affect our mental health? Apparently not.