by Tom Chivers
Friday, 5
March 2021
Factcheck
08:50

No, social media is not as bad as heroin

A wild claim made in the New Statesman doesn't check out
by Tom Chivers
Most girls have grown up with social media and it hasn’t affected them too badly

If you’re a parent, imagine that someone comes up to you and offers you two choices. One, your daughter will become a regular user of social media. Or two, she will become a regular user of heroin. Which would you prefer?

Obviously you answered “social media”. Many millions of girls around the world use social media, and while it would be silly to say that there aren’t negative consequences to it, most of those girls seem to have grown up all right. Some people have been using Instagram for 11 years; there will be people, just about, who started in their teens and are now in their 30s. Twitter and Facebook have been around longer still, and while they were not at their present level of ubiquity 15 years ago, millions have used them for years. 

Of course, lots of people take heroin too, and some of them have happy productive lives, but a large fraction of them suffer severe negative consequences. (At least partly as a result of prohibition, I’d say, but still.) If social media had large negative impacts with anything like the regularity heroin does, it would be staggeringly obvious.

Which is why I was startled to see the New Statesman tweeting that “heavy use of social media, for adolescent girls, is correlated more strongly with depression than [is] the use of heroin”.

The piece is by Louise Perry, an esteemed UnHerd colleague, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that she’s wrong to be concerned about social media. There probably are real things to worry about for a subset of users, and yes, it does seem to be girls who suffer the most.

But the “heroin” claim is unfortunate. It comes from a study by the psychologist Jean Twenge, itself a response to an earlier piece of research by Amy Orben and Andy Przybylski which I’ve written about here (I won a Royal Statistical Society award for that piece, if I’m allowed to brag). Orben and Przybylski showed that the correlation between social media use and mental wellbeing was extremely small and uncertain; negative, but only as negative as the correlation between well-being and wearing glasses. They also showed that you could find more negative correlations, but only by chopping the data up to cherry-pick bits out.

I won’t go into the full back-and-forth. But Twenge et al, as far as I can tell, did indeed take the most dramatic correlation; she denies cherry-picking it, but certainly she seems to have misunderstood what Orben and Przybylski were trying to do; they respond here.

In fairness to Twenge, the “heroin” comparison seems to have been a response to the other scientists’ comparing social media’s effects with “wearing glasses” and “eating potatoes”. But it is, I think, a really unwise comparison. We use terms like “internet addiction”, “social media addiction”, “gaming addiction” as though these are real things, but they are not: they simply do not exist in the same way as drug addictions do; there is no well-defined definition and the attempts to create one do not find very much. Comparing social media to drugs is entirely unhelpful. Yes, this is specifically (and I think wrongly) comparing the effect on depression, but people will read it and see “social media as bad as heroin”, without the nuance.

And right now, especially, we all rely on social media, on screen time, on these little glowing portals to other people, to get us through the bloody day. I can’t do my work without it, my children can’t do their schoolwork, none of us can talk to our friends, unless we use the internet. Social media is vital at the moment. Telling people that it’s as bad as heroin – that they might, in essence, be killing their daughters by letting them use it – seems cruel, especially since it’s almost certainly not true.

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Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

Social media is not the same as the internet. Also we don’t all ‘rely on social media’. I’d have thought a Royal Statistical Society award-winning author would be able to understand this.

Bertie B
Bertie B
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek M

Well said: Social Media and the Internet are too completley different things. As a full time web developer I have a greater dependency on the Internet than others, so I speak with some small authority on this.

The distinction between “the web” and the Internet is a battle that has already been lost due to the media being uninterested or incapable of understanding the difference between the two.

It would be a sad state of affairs if that lack of nuance, no lack of basic understanding in how the modern world works, was extended to blur the lines between the Internet and Social Media.

As I said, my livelihood is dependent on the Internet and the Web, but I do not have any social media accounts, and do not use them – aside from watching the odd tutorial video on YouTube (I have to do this as people seem to have lost the ability to communicate instructions in one short sentence, and instead prefer a 15 minute video)

So we don’t all rely on Social media, particularly to do school work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bertie B
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek M

I say, give this writer an Emmy.

‘Of course, lots of people take heroin too, and some of them have happy productive lives, but a large fraction of them suffer severe negative consequences. (At least partly as a result of prohibition, I’d say, but still.)’

The Liberal way. If you have no background in drug addiction then maybe a simple look into one part of history may enlighten you. China during the Opium years. Not Prohibition, so should have been great – but instead the ideal of the small business owner class, the most sensible of all people, became a wish to get his affairs in order and family to take over the business, and thus he could sink into a cloud of opium till death. Workers consumed any excess cash they could get on the pipe. Such was the way it took over society that it was destroying not just lives, but society. The opium wars – which I suppose the writer would say were reactionary attempts to limit freedom of choice on the part of the Chinese government, and a wish to allow the people to chose what they put into themselves by the enlightened British..

So the writer supposes two destructive forces, at least that is how his article is set up, and so says pick the lesser one. Is that really the answer? Not maybe chose, AND, try to mitigate, the lesser bad one?

Mike H
Mike H
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek M

In fairness, you’re making that claim in a comments section of a website and have racked up 10 likes for it 😉 There’s no real difference between commenting BTL on the article webpage and commenting on a reshare on Twitter or Facebook.
Sure we don’t rely on it in a pedantic technical sense, but here we are, talking to strangers using it. Obviously it meets some sort of need.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
1 year ago

Would the excessive use and negative consequences of social media use be more fairly compared with other behavioural compulsions like gambling, shopping and porn?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

“heavy use of social media, for adolescent girls, is correlated more strongly with depression than [is] the use of heroin”.
We already have increased talk of mental health issues among young people during the pandemic and its lockdowns, so why would a sewer like social media not contribute? Social media involves their friends, and various non-friends, all of whom can decide to target someone over an errant tweet, an odd picture, or whatever else. Heroin tends to be a solitary problem and we have found ways of helping people break the habit.
Social media is vital at the moment.
That’s exactly what the addict says, too. No, it’s not vital. It may be useful and the idea that someone in this industry cannot do his job without it goes a long way in explaining the eroding standards within journalism.

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It does, yes. But it is there and it is a fad of youth. All generations go through these things.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
1 year ago

I don’t think the kids are growing up alright.

Nate D.
Nate D.
1 year ago

As a father with three daughters, given the choice between heroine and social media, I would choose neither. But, if you put a gun to my head, I would still choose neither.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

I wouldn’t know about social media or heroin, not having tried either of them. (I always say that Gaja is my heroin). But I have taken the New Statesman once or twice and I can say that it is probably the most damaging substance one can ingest.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I have never tried either but I guess people would see me as a strong person in that I don’t feel the need to ‘follow’ people to get kicks. There will be zillions of young people who feel that they have to be on social media or, effectively. not exist.
Which takes us back to Cancel Culture.
I will swear that contributors to The New Statesman actually get bonusses for the number of times they can squeeze ‘fat cats’ into their articles. I don’t even think the NS supports the Left in today’s world.

Mark H
Mark H
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Stephen Bush is a notable exception – writes some of the most insightful articles on UK politics.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I am currently reading a collection of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s letters to Bernard Berenson. Trevor-Roper was a frequent contributor to the New Statesman in the 1950s, but it’s been all downhill since then.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

There will be zillions of young people who feel that they have to be on social media or, effectively. not exist.
Indeed. There is this thing called FOMO, or fear of missing out, and it’s approaching psychosis levels. People believe they have to be constantly glued to that screen or something “important” might happen without their knowledge.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
1 year ago

I can believe the comparison – ever had heroin tell you:

  • you’re usless
  • you’re fat
  • you’re to skinny
  • you’re ugly

etc etc etc

Epicurus Araraxia
Epicurus Araraxia
1 year ago

On the other hand, social media doesn’t depress your respiration rate and thereby kill you if you happen to overdo it.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

that’s true…social media simply allows friends or strangers to say the nastiest things imaginable about you, or to post your address for the world to see, or attempt to ruin your reputation. Those are helpful to one’s mental health, especially in this lockdown era when more young people are having suicidal thoughts even without being targeted.

steve eaton
steve eaton
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I find the author’s lack of logic somewhat obvious. He is positing the idea that if we consider that Social Media has a correlation to depression similar to relationship that Heroin has with depression, then we must assume that Social Media is a bad as Heroin.
He is either an idiot or another media face trying to manipulate the public. Either way he has insulted my intelligence.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  steve eaton

He was commenting on a piece that posited that idea. Don’t think he intended you any insult.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

I’m compiling (in my head for now) a list of
Non- woke things that wind up anti-woke people as much as woke things do. ‘The evil of social media’ is one.
My theory is anti- woke people are angry about lots of things – some of which happen to be woke.

Christopher Wheatley
Christopher Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I think they are mainly old. Once upon a time I worked in Italy for a year and every morning the cafes were full of old retired people putting the world to rights. They were very angry and their voices were very loud.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
1 year ago

One day, something new will replace social media. It will be considered a path to perdition and people will look back at the “social media age” as one of enlightenment and wisdom.
A few years ago I saw a play called The Nether. I recommend those who see the web, internet, social media as something to be controlled and rationed, to read about it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Warren Alexander
Allons Enfants
Allons Enfants
1 year ago

Social media, unlike heroin, is just as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ as one’s own social circles. I’m not on social media, simply because i’m too lazy / can’t be ar$ed with it – and i know that i miss out on some good valuable stuff by not being on social media.
Then again, i’m not a teenager in the process of trying to build a personality, i can imagine it could be a minefield for them to navigate. The world got way too much ‘social’ since i was a teen.

simelsdrew
simelsdrew
1 year ago

I think Dr. Twenge made a mistake in doing her study. Common sense is my criteria. Small usage of social media.