Researchers have investigated whether a marked decline in youth mental health is linked to social media. 

The e61 Institute, an economic research organisation, has provided new insights into the issue in a submission (PDF) to the Joint Select Committee on Social Media and Australian Society. The findings suggest a significant association between the rise of social media and deteriorating mental health among young Australians, particularly young women.

The research utilised data from the Household, Income, Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey, revealing that average self-reported mental health has been declining for women and girls aged 15 to 24 since the early 2010s. 

This decline is notably more gradual for their male counterparts. It was found that young women born since the late 1990s report significantly lower levels of mental health and friendship connections compared to older generations and young men.

The timing of the decline in mental health aligns with pivotal developments in the social media landscape. 

The sharpest decline for young women began after 2012, coinciding with the introduction and growing popularity of platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. 

“Our research suggests that social media may have a role to play,” the submission notes.

Young women aged 15 to 24 report the highest levels of social media usage, often using these platforms daily. 

The research highlights a strong correlation between poor mental health and feelings of social isolation, which have also increased among young women during this period.

The study's findings are consistent with trends observed in other countries, such as the United States, where similar declines in youth mental health have been linked to the proliferation of social media. 

This suggests that the phenomenon may not be entirely driven by Australian-specific factors but could be part of a broader, global trend.

Despite the suggestive correlations, the e61 Institute underscores the necessity for more comprehensive data to understand the causal impacts of social media on mental health. 

The ideal dataset would combine individual-level mobile phone usage data with confidential medical and social records. 

“More research is necessary to isolate the causal impact of social media on the mental health of Australians,” the submission says.

The institute is calling for the inclusion of specific questions on social media use in national surveys like the HILDA Survey or the ABS' National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing.