Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox has a “burner” Twitter account. He doesn’t use it to skulk online; with it, he follows about 20 accounts that give him news or other information that’s helpful as he leads the Beehive State. His regular Twitter, like other social media accounts, can be more distracting at times than useful.

Social media is, in fact, a mixed bag, connecting people and also pushing them apart. Providing information, but likely misinformation, too. Including, but also isolating people. Teaching, but also distracting.

And children in Utah and elsewhere may bear the brunt of the challenges, according to the “Social Media and Youth Mental Health Summit” that Cox hosted Tuesday at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City.

He told the story of his burner account at the gathering, which brought together mental health experts, policymakers, parents, educators and others concerned about an unhappy connection between social media and youth mental health. Experts nationwide have seen a correlation between rising mental health issues like anxiety, depression and suicidality among teens and the near-ubiquity of social media in their lives.

In her introduction to the panels, Tracy Gruber, executive director of the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, noted that experts are still trying to understand the impact of social media on children. While there’s little evidence of causation, the correlation between youths being online and mental health is clear, she noted.

“Ironically, while it’s designed to increase connections across communities and people, it may also be contributing to feelings of sorrow, social isolation and inadequacy,” said Gruber. “It’s not only bringing us together, but sadly, it’s drawing us further apart, contributing to an increase of tribalism, and limiting our exposure to those with diverse perspectives, experiences and opinions. And for our youth, it’s leading to an increase in bullying behavior, when you can call someone names, hurt their feelings and engage in personal attacks behind the shield of social media.”

One goal of the conference, Utah first lady Abby Cox told the Deseret News, is to help adults — particularly teachers and parents — “get on the same page” when it comes to managing social media, including in the classroom.

Experts were careful to note that much of what social media offers is good. But use has to be balanced to avoid that which is harmful. And Cox said that’s a challenge not just for adolescents, but for adults, too.

Dr. Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, speaks to members of the media during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Brad Wilcox, a scholar with both the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, as well as a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia who’s also a Deseret News contributing writer, was more blunt, citing a link between social media and anxiety, depression, suicide and other problems. But it’s not as easy as telling kids to put down their smartphones and go outside for a pickup ballgame, he said, “when all your friends are online, either on social media or playing video games.”

Wilcox said girls, in particular, are showing negative mental health effects from too much social media. Meanwhile, boys are “more likely to be floundering in our schools today” in part because they spend so much time playing video games instead of interacting in the real world, he said.

Wilcox believes that parents are at a crossroads similar to that faced 30 years ago when a push against tobacco companies and their products began to help folks understand the link between smoking and cancer. Tackling the negatives of social media is also a health issue, he and Cox agreed.

Wilcox described a “closing of the American heart” as people isolate themselves on screens instead of engaging in relationships with family and friends, which “are the things that drive happiness and protect us from things like depression.” Socializing in person, religious activities and adequate sleep also contribute to wellbeing. He noted dramatic declines in marriage and fertility and said the fact that people spend a lot of time not engaging sparks concern that technology could be a wall instead of a bridge.

Cox noted that technology can also interfere with learning, as increasingly students in classrooms are focusing on their phones and other screens, instead of their instructors and books. Meanwhile, mental health among students continues to decline. He said that a BYU professor teaching a science class told him that where one or two students in a class of 250 a decade ago used to apply for letters of accommodation for mental health problems, a class of 100 students may now have 40-50 students who need some accommodation.

Defining the gap between the worlds of faith and mental health

Lack of sleep is also linked to depression, Cox and Wilcox said. And social media is often what keeps students up.

The two hope state and federal legislators will figure out ways to rein in technology use that’s harmful. Wilcox said that legislation in Louisiana now requires pornography sites to verify the age of those who use the site. He said some schools are not allowing youths to bring laptops or phones to class. Similarly, he added, it might not be a bad idea for parents to have a bowl in the kitchen where kids dump their smartphones when they get home so families “interact in a more human way.”

While government is not designed to solve all of society’s problems, Cox said, it can help. That’s one reason Utah has set aside money for public service announcements pointing out that social media can interfere with relationships and challenge youth mental health.

It’s not enough to turn the phone off, he added. When the device is on your person, “it’s connected to your brain,” he said. You must physically disconnect from it. “I guess I’m telling you that the psychology, the way this is rewiring our brains, it’s not great,” Cox added.

The challenge is not getting rid of technology. Cox said it’s preparing kids for a world where they will be engaging with devices and helping them know how to do it in a positive way.

Abby Cox said she hopes that states will be galvanized to make better decisions around kids and social media. She thinks parents need to be better educated about the impact of social media and work with teachers to get phones out of the classroom so learning isn’t diluted.

Asked about the safety concerns some folks raise when saying students should be allowed to keep their phones handy, she said there are ways to mitigate danger and there are safety policies that are very effective without students holding their phones.

The summit also included panel discussions. A group of mental health experts discussed Utah’s youth mental health crisis and some of the contributing factors, including social media. A high school senior, a social worker and Abby Cox dissected how parents and their children can navigate social media. And in the last panel of the day, three Utah legislators talked about potential legislation to protect youths from social media harm.

The event was sponsored by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, Gardner, the Larry H. Miller Company and Intermountain Healthcare.