Specification curve analysis shows that social media use is linked to poor mental health, especially among girls
Twenge, J.M., Haidt, J., Lozano, J., & Cummins, K.M.
An important 2019 paper applied a novel analytic technique called Specification Curve Analysis (SCA) to data from three large-scale community samples to investigate the association between adolescent technology use and mental health/well-being. The paper concluded that an association exists but is tiny, with median betas between -0.01 and -0.04. This association was reported to be smaller than links between mental health and various innocuous variables in the datasets such as eating potatoes, and therefore to be of no practical significance. The current paper re-ran SCA on the same datasets while applying alternative analytic constraints on the model specification space, including: 1) examining specific digital media activities (e.g., social media) separately rather than lumping all “screen time” including TV together; 2) examining boys and girls separately, rather than examining them together; 3) excluding potential mediators from the list of controls; and 4) treating scales equally (rather than allowing one scale with many subscales to dominate all others). We were able to reproduce the original results with the original configurations. When we used the revised constraints, we found several much larger relationships than previously reported. In particular: among girls, there is a consistent and substantial association between mental health and social media use (median betas from -0.11 to -0.24). These associations were stronger than links between mental health and binge drinking, sexual assault, obesity, and hard drug use, suggesting that these associations may have substantial practical significance as many countries are experiencing rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among teenagers and young adults.