HARTFORD – Seventeen-year-old Coventry High School student Dylan Nodwell knows first-hand the downsides of social media and how cyberbullying has caused anxiousness and, in many cases, deep depression among today’s teens.
Nodwell, who will be a high school senior this fall, estimates that 90 percent of his peers use social media – primarily TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat – and that time on those sites often lead to bullying that goes unchecked.
“I wished I’d grown up without it,” Nodwell told CT Examiner Friday. “People are behind a screen and they find it easy to bully others. You can leave mean comments and there are not always repercussions for that. I’ve seen friends get sad, anxious and depressed because of it. It kind of normalizes that sort of negative attitude toward others.”
Nodwell, who was the only teen to speak in front of Sen. Richard Blumenthal during an Aug. 10 roundtable in New London on the effects of social media on mental health and the youth, said he’s seen how social media companies use algorithms to target young people. He’s also seen the impact that social media influencers have on teens. That impact, Nodwell said, is bigger than many might think.
“They [influencers] promote expensive materialistic things that can make others feel left out, and can lead them to get very depressed. I’ve heard of people my age developing eating disorders because of what they see on social media,” Nodwell said.
Blumenthal was in the state to tout “Kids Online Safety Act” a proposed federal law to regulate social media platforms and to require them, for example, to refrain from helping advertisers of age-restricted products, such as gambling and tobacco, target minors; and to report each year on foreseeable risks of harm to minors using the platform.
Studies – both nationally and internationally – show a somewhat disturbing, if unsurprising, trend: the use of social media by young people correlates with a negative life outlook.
In a paper published in Nature last year, researchers studied 17,409 young people in the United Kingdom between the ages of 10 and 21. Among the findings: there is a high negative life satisfaction for younger adolescents who use social media.
And in May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a report “Social Media and Youth Mental Health,” warning that 95 percent of teens between the ages of 13-17 use a social media platform, and about a third “almost constantly.”
Murthy warned that while “the current body of evidence indicates that while social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”
Connecticut lawmakers, mental health experts and advocates blamed COVID for creating isolation and loneliness among young people, and for further immersing children in an unhealthy online world.
“COVID created isolation and a deficit in the social emotional learning experience that likely resulted in a loss of skills in terms of how kids relate, communicate, participate and cooperate,” said Monroe-based Key Therapy Practice Owner Samantha Birtwell. “Specifically, there was the deep immersion into social media that many kids experienced and relied on for connection. Not just Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube influencers, misinformation and catastrophic conspiracies, but access to what we – at least I – would think of as disturbing, maybe violent, maybe sexual (or both) material that even young children who are unmonitored can access without their parents even being aware.”
Jeanne Milstein, director of Human Services in New London, was recently tapped by State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, to sit on a new state panel tasked with transforming the state’s youth and behavioral mental health system.
Milstein said she’s seen, up close and personal, in her job as New London’s director of human services, the impact – often negative impact – of social media on youth.
“There is a lot of despair and hopelessness, that is what I am hearing” regarding the impact of social media today, said Milstein, who was Connecticut’s Child Advocate from 2000 to 2012. “People just got very isolated during COVID, and it’s very hard to come back from when you are a child.”
Somers, who earlier this month was one of 12 people in the nation to be named a “2023 Mental Health Legislative Champion” by the advocacy group Virginia-based Mental Health America, echoed Milstein in saying she’s seen research and heard from constituents that many young people are losing hope and that social media is a big part of the problem.
“Social media definitely plays a big part in the whole anxiety that children are feeling. They are depressed and anxious,” said Somers, the chief deputy Republican leader and ranking State Senator on the Public Health Committee. “They are anxious about life and there is this feeling of hopelessness.”
Somers, who has sponsored and or co-sponsored numerous pieces of legislation over the years related to mental health and the mental health of youth in particular, said her childhood was nothing like what the children of today face.
“What did my generation do wrong?” Somers asked. “We have a generation of children that, you know, are struggling so much.”
A harder look by the legislature
In 2022, the State Legislature passed a sweeping bipartisan mental health bill that, among other things, focused on child mental health and early childhood education. The budget included $35 million to cover the cost of programming. The bill included provisions that affect every aspect of the mental health system, from state agencies to insurance companies and mental health providers, doctors and local and regional school districts.
In 2024, lawmakers say they will follow up on the 2022 legislation, and aim directly at youth and social media.
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, and co-chair of the Children’s Committee, told CT Examiner she’s introduced several bills the last few sessions that didn’t make it over the legislative finish line, but that will be reintroduced when the new session starts in February 2024.
Specifically, Linehan said, she supported a bill that would prevent children 15 years and younger from having a social media account. That failed.
Another bill she proposed, but that social media lobbyists were successful in staving off, had two components to it.
The first, mandated that when users between the ages of 13 and 25 sign in to a social media account, there would be a reminder about suicide with the suicide hotline number displayed prominently. “Studies show that social media can affect your mental health,” Linehan said. The second component would allow parents to request that social media companies close the social media accounts of their children, and delete any data compiled on the account.
Linehan said Minnesota and California recently rolled out similar measures and, that for the upcoming session, she wants a bill that “will be bigger and better” and that “will garner the support of both chambers.” Linehan said she’d been spending time prior to the session looking at how those two states implemented their bills and might want to use some of their language in any bill she proposes for the upcoming session.
Linehan and Somers both said they’d be looking at the findings of a UConn Neag School of Education study commissioned by the legislature and expected in the spring. The study looks at the effects of social media on youth in the state.
“It’s the first study of its kind in the nation,” Somers said. “We spent last summer setting the criteria of what we are going to be looking for. And, right now we are in the process of recruiting schools to get on board. The study’s findings will provide us with some really important data to make policy decisions on things like whether there should be an age limit [for using social media]; and whether students should be allowed to have access to social media in school; those types of things.”
Adam McCready told CT Examiner on Friday that UConn has organized a few focus groups to date, with the goal of engaging middle and high schools in four or five school districts this fall.
He declined to name the districts, but did say they’d be varied and have students from different socio-economic backgrounds and would be ”geographically distributed across the state.”
McCready also said UConn had contacted every school district and asked for copies of their policies related to social media and technology use.