Everyone Says Social Media Is Bad for Teens. Proving It Is Another Thing.

There have been increasingly loud public warnings that social media is harming teenagers’ mental health — most recently from the United States surgeon general — adding to many parents’ fears about what all the time spent on phones is doing to their children’s brains.

While many scientists share the concern, there is little research to prove that social media is harmful — or to indicate which sites, apps or features are problematic. There isn’t even a shared definition of what social media is. It leaves parents, policymakers and other adults in teenagers’ lives without clear guidance on what to be worried about.

“We have some evidence to guide us, but this is a scenario where we just need to know more,” said Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist at Brown who studies the topic.

The surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned last month that social media carried a “profound risk of harm,” but he didn’t name any apps or websites. His report acknowledged that “there isn’t a single, widely accepted scholarly definition of social media.”

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