No, it hasn’t been proven that “Instagram is worst for young mental health”. We need to stop misleading the public with social media pseudoscience.

One week after the publication of the Royal Society for Public Health’s #StatusOfMind report, I submitted an opinion piece about its flaws to the Guardian. One month later, they published a heavily edited version. Here I share the unabridged and unedited version, which gives a better overview of why I disagree with the report and its methodology.


The Guardian’s version

Last month the American media channel CNBC published a news story titled “Instagram most likely to cause young people to feel depressed and lonely out of major social apps, study says”. Back in London, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) thanked the CNBC reporter over Twitter for a “great write up” of the results of their new study covered in their #StatusOfMind report. Yet the society’s study doesn’t provide any evidence that Instagram is the worst for mental health, nor that there is even a relationship between social media use and depression or loneliness.

Over the next days, however, RSPH repeatedly retweeted and shared news stories like CNBC’s. In the meantime, researchers started to point out the severe shortcomings of their work. The society’s report was featured by most national media outlets, including the Guardian, BBC, Evening Standard, Times and Telegraph. Most of the stories included a statement about Instagram being most damaging to mental health in their title. Other’s mentioned how the report had stated that “social media is more addicting than cigarettes”.

Does the public health charity care more about their media coverage than about correctly informing the public?

Although covered widely by the media, the study the report describes has glaring problems with its measures, analyses, unspecified sample and unfounded statements (the research article given as a reference for the claim that social media is more addicting than smoking only examined “media use”, not social media use). The study’s findings are based on young people’s (albeit over 1,500) answers to 14 self-designed questions about how different social media platforms affect their lives. The answers are summed to create a “mental health ranking” of the various platforms.

But you cannot measure the mental health impact of a social media platform by adding together people’s answers to single questions about how specific sites give them “FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out — feeling you need to stay connected because you are worried things could be happening without you)” or affect their “self-identity” or “sleep”. To show mental health impact you need long-term studies that measure mental health with tried-and-tested measures or examine real-life health outcomes like incidences of diagnosed depression. Combining responses to 14 freely-designed questions to measure health outcomes is nonsensical; it goes against the most basic scientific practice taught to undergraduate psychologists and training medics.

How can it be that such extremely poor ‘science’ got covered by the nation’s media? The reason lies with the Royal Society for Public Health, who press-released this report even though it had never touched the scientific peer-review process — a process where each new scientific contribution is reviewed by other expert researchers before being released to the research community and the public. This peer-review process is designed to spot flawed science and hinder its publication. It would have stopped the RSPH report.

Like for many other societies previously, it seems like the temptation for a media frenzy was just too sweet. ‘Sexy’ headlines get media coverage, even when they have not been peer-reviewed and are scientifically weak. While I do agree with many suggestions put forth in the RSPH’s report, they should not have utilised a scientifically weak but juicy headline to get their report into the papers.

Social media research coverage in the media = the boy who cried wolf?

Science is already in crisis with the public’s trust in results and methodology decreasing. This is partly due to conflicting science headlines being published on a regular basis: on one day social media is great, on the other it is bad. Psychological researchers are working hard to make their science more robust, but as a first step the press-releasing of ‘science’ that has not been peer-reviewed needs to stop.

Like the boy who cried wolf, we cannot repeatedly mislead the public with headlines we know are wrong, and expect them to trust and finance science in the long term.

The use of non-reviewed ‘science’ to get into headlines needs to stop.