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Personal Choice Can Tame the Mental Health Crisis Blamed on Social Media
What dystopian children’s book writer Lois Lowry can teach us about individual choice and technology
I recently read a story about a family in crisis. One of the children was struggling because of an addiction to an electronic device. The parents had brought the new technology home for entertainment, and soon the entire family was enjoying their new toy. But all too soon, the novelty wore off.
The parents noticed that their teenage son was spending almost all of his time on the device, mesmerized by its enchanting display. He hardly moved other than to swipe down on the device. The machine strained the family’s relationship with each other and with friends. A mysterious illness overtook the son. Eventually, the community banned the device and all was well again.
Similar stories to this one can be found in any number of articles that blame today’s teenage mental health crisis on smartphones and social media. These articles have been warning parents against their children’s digital obsessions for years. Alarmist and condemning, they advocate for regulations to stop the suffering, often provoking responses from doubters who profess that social media is just fine, or even beneficial.
But this story is actually taken from two novels by Lois Lowry—The Messenger and Son. Sequels to Lowry’s controversial 1993 novel—The Giver—these books were written before the social media age and predate the teen mental health crisis that is now such a growing concern for parents and policymakers alike. Messenger was published only two months after Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, and Son came out when Instagram had fewer than 50 million users.
Yet I was struck by how closely Lowry’s books imitate the real-life struggle of many parents and teens today. Looking more deeply at Lowry’s dystopian tales reveals a new way to think about the cause of teenage anxiety and depression. Rather than debate whether social media caused the crisis, we can focus on what people give up for their social media use, and how individual choices and public policy can foster resilience.
Do Smartphones Cause Anxiety and Depression?
The connection between smartphones, social media and mental health has been explored for well over a decade. Google searches for “social media depression” have trended upward since 2015, hitting a peak early in the COVID pandemic. Searches surged again in February when the Centers for Disease Control reported that nearly 60% of adolescent girls felt persistently sad or lonely, and many had contemplated ending their lives. Indeed, the suicide rate among U.S. adolescents has doubled in 10 years. Clearly, many people wonder if social media is the cause.
Some people say the answer is clearly yes. For instance, famed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that the crisis began at the same time smartphones became ubiquitous. In May, the U.S. surgeon general warned for the first time that social media may be hazardous to teens. Utah passed a law that will require parental permission for teen social accounts and launched a public information campaign linking teen mental health issues to social media use.
But not so fast. Some researchers argue that the studies blaming social media for the rise in adolescent depression rely on shaky statistics and weak data. The Washington Post editorial board insists that the research is inconclusive. Legal scholars claim that Utah’s law violates teenagers’ First Amendment rights because the evidence is exaggerated or speculative, and doesn’t justify the restriction.
These arguments on both sides of the debate rely on an assumption about social media: that it either is or isn’t like an addictive substance. Psychologist Tara Emrani once told Fox News that social media creates feelings “similar to those resulting from cocaine,” while New York University statistician Aaron Brown countered that “Social media use isn't a toxin. Each tweet you read doesn't kill two pleasure-receptor brain cells.”
Comparisons like this ignore the complexity of personal choice and other factors. Social media isn’t a toxin unless it’s one that quite a few people can’t tolerate without being harmed. But it isn’t harmless candy either, considering how many people struggle with it.
Lowry’s books introduce us to a concept that clarifies the question we should ask ourselves about social media.
The Metaphor of Trade Mart
Lowry’s Messenger and Son center on a place called Village, a democratic haven that welcomes refugees from the dystopian communities of her earlier books, The Giver and Gathering Blue. But Village’s peace is disrupted by Trademaster, a mysterious, cloaked character who grants wishes at an event called Trade Mart.
“It had always seemed to me like a simple entertainment,” says Jonas, a central character in the series. “Everyone got dressed up… but there was always a nervousness to it, an uneasiness.” (It sounds like Instagram already.)
Jonas discovers that people must trade their virtues, such as honesty or kindness, for Trademaster’s wares. “They traded away the best parts of themselves … in order to get the foolish things they thought they wanted,” he says.
Matty, the main character in Messenger, becomes enthralled with the “Gaming Machine,” a candy-dispensing slot machine that his friend Ramon’s parents got at Trade Mart. Matty tries to convince Seer, his guardian, to get one.
“If we had a gaming machine, our evenings would never be boring,” he says. He explains the machine’s features: It moves quickly and doles out peppermints, gumdrops, licorice or multi-colored sourballs. “When you win a candy, a bell rings and colored lights blink.”
But Seer chuckles dryly and responds, “And so we would give up, or maybe even trade away, reading and music in exchange for the extreme excitement of pulling a handle and watching sourballs spit forth from a mechanical device?”
“Put that way, Matty thought, the Gaming Machine didn’t actually seem such a good trade.”
The Smartphone as Gaming Machine
If Lowry wrote Messenger today, she might have Ramon and Matty play Candy Crush Saga on a smartphone or scroll through TikTok instead of spending their evenings on a slot machine. The technologies are similar in that they both use lights, sounds and variable rewards to create a dopamine response. Design ethicist Tristan Harris acknowledged these distractions and stated in a TED Talk: “My phone is a slot machine…. It doesn't leave me with any choice. I still just get sucked into it.”
The fact that the characters in Lowry’s books traded “parts of themselves” for their wants invites us to explore what we exchange for the flashing colors of smartphone screens and the attractive chimes of notifications. The Washington Post, trying to exonerate social media, ironically wrote that the problem isn’t social media use, “but rather how it swallows up hours that would otherwise be devoted to the activities that … are beneficial for mental health, such as exercise or, crucially, sleep.”
This gets at the heart of how social media affects mental health—not directly, like a drug, but through the way it shapes our lives and activities. The U.S. surgeon general’s advisory noted that social media’s harm depends on factors such as time spent on the platforms, what type of content is viewed, and to what extent it disrupts other healthy behaviors.
I call this “time trading.” Any time that we spend on entertaining technology is time for which we sacrificed something else. A 2007 study found that teenagers who played video games for eight hours each week spent less time reading and doing homework than non-gamers, and less time with family and friends (except when playing games with them). In 2016, researchers in a U.K. study found that time spent on social media meant less time being physically active and lower physical fitness.
Time trading may also change our values. A study earlier this year found that teens with more screen time prayed and read scripture much less often, even those from highly religious families.
Just as people in Messenger traded away some of their best characteristics for straighter backs, thicker hair and slot machines, we may trade away our sleep, exercise, social interaction, spiritual practice, volunteer time, musical hobbies or other mood-boosting activities for time spent on a virtual slot machine.
Not everyone makes the same trade, though, which helps explain why studies on the topic draw different conclusions, and why social media doesn’t affect all people the same. It also presents options for individual choice and public policy.
Individuals Can Decide the Trade
I recently spoke with Kennon Sheldon, a University of Missouri psychologist, who confessed, “When I first started studying Facebook, I really wanted to show that it was bad for people.” A decade ago, he published a paper showing that quitting Facebook decreased procrastination and improved well-being.
But the evidence has been more mixed, he said. He’s also found that Facebook can be used to “boost savoring,” which supports mental health when it is used to share positive experiences and memories. One of his latest papers shows that your motivations for using social media—for example, using a site because you enjoy it versus using a site because of fear of missing out—determine how it affects your life. Social sites can have addictive properties, he said, but each of us still can control why and how we log on.
Although Harris is correct when he says that social media is designed to distract, he is mistaken when he says that his phone “doesn’t leave me with any choice.” There are countless choices we can make that determine how our technology affects us. We still have the power to decide. For example, “dumb phones” are already making a comeback as some users want to opt-out of the distractions that come with smartphones. Those who do keep a smartphone can turn it off, leave it in a drawer, unsubscribe from notifications, install apps that block interruptions, and more.
On social media, we can choose whether to make plans for this weekend or to scowl at photos of last weekend’s party we didn’t get invited to. We can decide to scroll through political headlines and angry comments or look at family photos. Most importantly, we can decide whether, or how much time, to trade away that could be spent on exercise, family and friends, prayer, meditation, sleep and any other activity that supports our well-being.
In the realm of public policy, we do not need to choose between strict regulations or a laissez faire status quo. Lighter regulations, such as throttling algorithms for teen accounts, may be effective. Education campaigns can skip the doomsday drug comparisons and teach teens how to make time trades that support their mental health.
In Lowry’s books, Trademaster always presents his terms followed by the question, “Trade?” Most people say yes. Eventually, though, the Villagers reject the trade and rebuild their lives and rediscover their virtues. When a boy confronts Trademaster with this truth—that he cannot force ruin on anyone’s life—the supernatural villain withers and dies. Trademaster, like digital technology, only gains his power over people when they trade willingly.
The technologies that some people claim are overtaking our lives are the same as the villain in Lowry’s books. They can exercise great power over us, but only if we make the trade that lets them. When the digital Trademaster leans in and asks, “Trade?” we can say no.