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Hate speech soars for young social media users

Young people are encountering far more hate speech on social media than they did just two years ago, according to new survey data out Wednesday from Common Sense Media.

Why it matters: Cooped-up teens and young adults are spending more time than ever on social media to cope with loneliness during the pandemic, the survey shows, but they are also met with a new wave of vitriol, including body shaming and racist, sexist and homophobic content.

The big picture: Virtually all (95%) young people report using social media, with 25% of 14-to-22 year olds saying they are on social media "almost constantly" — that's an increase of 8 percentage points since 2018.

  • Context: Overall tensions were high in fall of 2020 — when the survey was conducted — as young adults were dealing with the pandemic's disruption to their lives. Youth were also witnessing social unrest unfolding in many cities across the country after the death of George Floyd, in addition to harsh partisan rhetoric surrounding the election.

What they found: 23% of 14- to 17-year-olds say they "often" came across racist comments on social media in 2020 — nearly double the number in 2018 (12%).

  • "Sadly, but not surprisingly, the teens and young adults who are most likely to be affected by such content are also most likely to encounter it — or recognize and remember it," says the study, which was done in partnership with Hopelab and the California Health Care Foundation.
  • Black young people are more likely than whites to see racist comments "often" (34% vs 23%). LGBTQ+ youth are more than twice as likely than non-LGBTQ+ youth to encounter homophobic comments (44% vs 18%). Females are more likely to encounter sexist and body shaming posts than males.

The other side: Despite the toxic content many youth ran into on social media, they also report positive experiences. Generally, young people are far more likely to say using social media makes them feel better (43%) — up from 27% who said so two years ago.

Young people suffering from moderate to severe depressive symptoms are about twice as likely as those without symptoms to use social media almost constantly.

  • But it is not possible from this research to tell whether the relationship between social media use and depression is a causal one.
  • The research raises the possibility that as more young people began experiencing depressive symptoms — from any cause — they turned to social media to express themselves, get support or advice, or feel less alone.

What to watch: The study also found that young people are quite willing to use telehealth services. Nearly half of those surveyed have connected with health providers online, including psychiatrists and therapists for mental health issues.

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