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In Hard Times, a Barrage of Ads Promises Peace of Mind

A lethal pandemic and widespread unemployment have coincided with a tense presidential campaign and nationwide unrest.

For the advertising industry, that means opportunity.

“If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can get through anything — and that beer sometimes helps,” the actor Paul Giamatti says in a Coors Light commercial.

The narrator of a commercial for Firstleaf, a subscription wine club, echoes the sentiment: “We’re going to need a lot of wine to get through this year.”

Those commercials are part of an onslaught of ads promising relief in a stressful time.

Online advertisements for Moon Pals, a line of plush-toy animals with big, doleful eyes, promise “deeper sleep,” “better cognitive functioning” and “reduced anxiety.” The company’s marketing materials inform potential customers that the arms of the stuffed Moon Pals creatures are specially weighted, so that they are able to give “hugs that can save the world.”

Credit…Moon Pals

Vitality Extracts, a company that sells elixirs and trinkets, promises to “lift your mood and relieve tension.” Its Stress & Anxiety Bundle includes a tiny bottle labeled Stress Away, which contains a “pure essential oil blend,” and a pair of “calming and anxiety bracelets.” At $50, the bundle is sold out.

Procter & Gamble says it can “turn the stressed life into your best life” in recent ads for StressBalls gumdrops, whose ingredients include ashwagandha extract and valerian root extract. Nature’s Bounty, a wellness company, promises a way for its customers to “find peace” in new ads for Stress Comfort gummies, which include ingredients such as gamma-aminobutyric acid, melatonin and lavender extract.

Roman, a New York company that offers treatments for conditions such as erectile dysfunction and hair loss, is advertising stress relief capsules that it says are “backed by science.” An unnamed user of Roman products featured in its marketing materials claims: “This company has changed my life.” But Roman acknowledges that some ingredients of its products, like rhodiola rosea, have “yet to be extensively studied in the U.S.A.”

Stephanie Van Stee, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in health communication, advises consumers not to allow stress to overwhelm their skepticism. “You need to be looking at these advertisements critically and do your research to make sure you know what you’re getting into with some of these things,” she said.

During a time when more than 180,000 people in the United States have died of Covid-19 and millions have been put out of work, nearly a third of American adults have reported signs of anxiety or depression, a significant increase from a year earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last month. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that of the millions of workers who have faced pay cuts or layoffs, more than half blame the pandemic for damaging their mental health.

Public service messages geared to a newly vulnerable population started appearing in the spring, with commercials from the Advertising Council, a nonprofit group. In one campaign, entertainers including Meghan Trainor and Addison Rae encouraged teenagers to connect with friends; in another, creators on TikTok like Jaci Butler and Parker James shared tips on how to handle isolation.

Those messages were followed by a flood of ads for sleep aids, mental-health apps, remote therapy services, prescription drugs, potions and tinctures.



Calm, a meditation and sleep app, spent an estimated $15.6 million on TV commercials from March through August, up from $3 million a year earlier, according to the research firm iSpot.TV. The company’s spending on Facebook nearly tripled over the same period, according to estimates from the advertising analytics platform Pathmatics. In a Calm ad that has appeared on Instagram, the actress Eva Green reads a bedtime story, “The Magic Hotel,” by the “sleep story” author Christina Yang, in her breathy alto over the gentle strains of a piano.

Headspace, another meditation app, spent $27.3 million on a recent television campaign that reached viewers an estimated 1.9 billion times, according to iSpot.TV. “This crisis is affecting all of us,” the narrator says on one commercial. “Our mental health is suffering, but most of us just don’t know how to deal with it. But we can try, with tools to help look after our mind.”

The digital ad agency Playbook Media is testing messages for Mellow, an app in development, which shows users images of paintings as a calming device. “There’s a market opportunity to capitalize on the current moment,” said Bryan Karas, Playbook’s chief executive.

Spending on ads for antidepressant medications on traditional platforms has also gone up slightly, rising to $76.8 million from March through June from $75.6 million a year earlier, according to the research firm Kantar. Trintellix, an antidepressant medication, has eight ads on Facebook, according to Facebook Ad Library.

Marketing budgets have expanded greatly for companies offering remote mental health counseling, according to data from iSpot.TV. A commercial for Talkspace, a therapy-by-text service that has faced concerns about client privacy, features the swimmer Michael Phelps. “It’s OK to not be OK,” he says, “and it’s OK to ask for help.” Ads in this area include new ones for Lemonaid Health, Plushcare and other therapy providers.

The cannabis industry has also been stirring demand for products with the potential to soothe. Companies focused on CBD, or cannabidiol, spent nearly $4.3 million on ads from March through June, more than five times the $798,000 they spent a year earlier, according to Kantar. One such business, Green Roads, tells customers: “These days it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Just take a minute.” Charlotte’s Web CBD has noted on Instagram that “feeling anxious can be an understandable response to many of the stressful events life throws at us, especially during a pandemic.”

Regulators have cautioned CBD companies against overpromising. The Food and Drug Administration cracked down on ads pitching CBD as a pandemic treatment that can “crush corona.” The Federal Trade Commission warned Patriot CBD against making misleading statements like: “When your body is chronically stressed, your immune system suffers. With the spread of this potentially deadly coronavirus, stress will be high … consider CBD Oil.”

Janelle Applequist, an associate professor of advertising and public relations at the University of South Florida, said the appeal of ads promising solace was likely to continue.

“What’s scary about right now is that we’ve been cooped up for so long, and the day-to-day has become so difficult, that it’s very tempting to see an ad for a drug and think that it might bring release,” she said. “We’re talking about people feeling serious financial pressure, social anxiety, loneliness.”

She added, “This is almost a recipe for disaster.”

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At Talkspace, Start-Up Culture Collides With Mental Health Concerns

In 2016, Ricardo Lori was an avid user of Talkspace — an app that lets people text and chat with a licensed therapist throughout the day. A part-time actor in New York City, Mr. Lori struggled with depression and anxiety, and he credited the app with helping him get out of an abusive relationship. He was a believer in Talkspace’s stated mission to make “therapy available and affordable for all,” and when the start-up offered him a job in its customer support department, Mr. Lori was ecstatic.

Talkspace, which has raised more than $100 million from investors, had an office in the old Studio 54 building in midtown Manhattan, with all the usual perks — a Ping-Pong table in the conference room and beer and wine in the company fridge, plus all the therapy employees wanted. “I felt like I was at the best place in the world,” Mr. Lori said.

After he wrote a general account of his therapy sessions on the company blog, an executive named Linda Sacco came to Mr. Lori with an intimate request. She wanted to give employees a sense of a typical user’s experience. Could she and one of the company’s co-founders, Roni Frank, read through two weeks of his therapy chat logs and then share excerpts with the staff?

Mr. Lori thought about his sessions, which included deeply personal information about his sex life and insecurities. Ms. Sacco assured Mr. Lori that they would keep him anonymous. “If I wasn’t such a true believer, I probably would have said, ‘Are you nuts?’ But I was so enamored of the place,” said Mr. Lori. He agreed.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

At an all-hands meeting on a Friday afternoon in December 2016, employees gathered in a 13th-floor conference room. The Ping-Pong table was folded up so that Ms. Sacco and Ms. Frank could sit on the floor, cross-legged and back-to-back, for a dramatic reading. Ms. Sacco played the role of the therapist; Ms. Frank played a female version of Mr. Lori.

As Mr. Lori drank a tall glass of red wine and watched, he noticed that a few employees kept glancing his way. Afterward, a member of the marketing department approached and asked if he was OK. Later, Oren Frank, Ms. Frank’s husband and the chief executive officer, thanked him in the elevator. Somehow, word had gotten around that Mr. Lori was the client in the re-enactment.

Mr. Lori began to reconsider whether Talkspace was the dream employer he’d imagined — and whether it could be trusted to protect the privacy of its users.

“Everything was done with employee-informed consent,” said Ms. Sacco, who no longer works at Talkspace. John Reilly, a lawyer for Talkspace, said, “At the time, the employee expressed great pride over their Talkspace treatment with their therapist, and willingly told multiple co-workers that the transcript was theirs.” Mr. Lori said he did so only after it became clear that his identity was widely known.


Credit…Ricardo Lori

Despite the embarrassing episode, Mr. Lori stayed with the company for two more years, until he was let go in 2018. He sued Talkspace for discrimination and wrongful termination, claiming he was told that his anxiety and depression were interfering with his work. The lawsuit settled at the beginning of 2020. Mr. Lori asked the company to take down his blog post; the company didn’t, which is part of why Mr. Lori decided to share his story with a reporter.

Mr. Lori and other former Talkspace employees, who asked not to be named for fear of being sued, describe a company with an admirable ambition to destigmatize therapy — but that they say has questionable marketing practices and regards treatment transcripts as another data resource to be mined. Their accounts suggest that the needs of a venture capital-backed start-up to grow quickly can sometimes be in conflict with the core values of professional therapy, including strict confidentiality and patient welfare.

This year, with a pandemic, a recession and an election shredding Americans’ nerves, those concerns are relevant to more people than ever before: In May, Talkspace told The Washington Post that its client base had jumped 65 percent since mid-February.

“The app-ification of mental health care has real problems,” said Hannah Zeavin, a lecturer in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley whose book about teletherapy is scheduled to be published next year by MIT Press. “These are corporate platforms first. And they offer therapy second.”

“Talkspace has democratized access to therapy and psychiatry by meeting patients where they are in their lives and making treatment more affordable,” said Neil Leibowitz, Talkspace’s chief medical officer. “The need is profound, especially now in this time of unease, and we are so proud of what our team of therapists is achieving.”


Credit…Ricardo Lori

Signing up with Talkspace is quick. Users create an account, fill out a questionnaire, and get a choice of therapists, who work for the platform as independent contractors. Those who sign up for the “Unlimited Messaging Therapy Plus” plan, at $260 a month, can send a therapist messages at any time and are promised daily responses. Higher-priced subscription tiers offer “live sessions” of 30 minutes. While users can send messages by text, audio and video, Talkspace is known popularly as a platform for texting.

The company was founded in 2011 by Oren and Roni Frank, an Israeli couple who felt inspired after their relationship was “saved” by marriage counseling. Mr. Frank had a background in marketing, and Ms. Frank was a software developer.

Ms. Frank is the company’s head of clinical services; as of Aug. 6, her LinkedIn page said she had a master’s degree in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from the New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, but she never completed the program. The degree claim was deleted after an inquiry from The Times. Mr. Reilly said Ms. Frank “studied for an M.A. but left her program before completion to launch Talkspace. Her LinkedIn profile was created while she was studying, the inadvertent error was corrected as soon as the NYT brought this to our attention.”

The app launched in 2014 to positive press but lukewarm customer reviews, with ratings of about three stars out of five on both the Google and Apple app stores, according to a Times analysis. Users complained about glitchy software and unresponsive therapists.

In 2015 and 2016, according to four former employees, the company sought to improve its ratings: It asked workers to write positive reviews. One employee said that Talkspace’s head of marketing at the time asked him to compile 100 fake reviews in a Google spreadsheet, so that employees could submit them to app stores.

Mr. Lori said that Talkspace gave employees “burner” phones to help evade the app stores’ techniques for detecting false reviews. “They said, ‘Don’t do it here. Do it at home. Give us five-star ratings because we have too many bad reviews,’” Mr. Lori said.

Mr. Reilly, the Talkspace lawyer, disputed this account, saying that employees were free to write reviews any way they liked. “We alerted employees if they were to leave a review, to do it from their personal phones — not from the Talkspace office network, as that would cause issues with the app store,” Mr. Reilly said in an emailed statement. “To be clear: We have never used fake identities or encouraged anybody to do so; there is no event involving ‘burner’ phones, and the idea in and of itself is nonsensical relative to the large number of reviews outstanding.”


Credit…Ricardo Lori 

Mr. Lori still has the iPhone 4 that Talkspace gave him. On the back, there is a white sticker on which someone has written “#7 App Store login,” along with a Yahoo email address and password. Two other former employees said burner phones were made available to workers.

“Fake reviews are deceptive to consumers,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. If the Talkspace employees didn’t disclose their role when leaving reviews, “then the company-encouraged reviews are problematic on multiple legal fronts,” Mr. Goldman said.

Posting fake online reviews is considered a deceptive business practice and can violate laws against false advertising. The New York attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission have fined companies for posting such reviews, though consequences can also be less severe. After the F.T.C. accused the cosmetics brand Sunday Riley of posting fake reviews, it simply made the company agree not to do so again.

Google and Apple forbid developers from soliciting fraudulent reviews. Apple says violators may have their apps removed from the App Store.

Talkspace has also seized on moments of national anxiety as opportunities for promotion. On Nov. 9, 2016, the morning after the election of Donald Trump, Mr. Frank wrote on Twitter: “Long night in NYC. Woke up this morning to record sales.” The company told reporters that users were flocking to the app to help process the news. CNBC and The Washington Post published stories about Talkspace’s “7-fold spike in traffic,” and Mr. Frank shared a Fast Company link claiming a “7x spike in sales.”


Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

According to data from two app analytics firms, App Annie and Sensor Tower, the number of Talkspace downloads declined in the months after the election. The Times analyzed more than 3,600 reviews of the Talkspace app. There was no significant increase in the number of reviews, positive or negative, following the 2016 election.

Dr. Leibowitz, Talkspace’s chief medical officer, who joined the company in 2018, said in an email: “We saw an uptick in use after the election, including, as the piece mentions, an uptick in traffic from existing clients concerned about election results. App analytics fail to capture a few elements: Much of our traffic is on the web.”

The Trump election tweets are examples of the sometimes unfiltered social media presence of Mr. Frank and Talkspace — an irreverence familiar among start-ups but unusual among organizations devoted to mental health care.

In 2016, a man named Ross complained on Twitter that the company’s subway ads “were designed to trigger you into needing their services.” Talkspace’s official Twitter account responded, “Ads for food make people hungry, right?” and added, “I get what you’re saying, Ross, but medical professionals need people to buy things.” The company later deleted the messages and blocked the man. (Ross wrote about the exchange in a Medium post; when The Times asked for comment recently, he deleted it and asked that his full name be withheld, citing personal reasons.)

From his own Twitter account, Mr. Frank called the man a “sweet bored troll” and mocked him for spending $20,000 a year on therapy, saying Talkspace could offer “a more affordable alternative.” The company declined to comment about the episode.

Therapy sessions are incredibly sensitive by their nature — they are intended to be a sacrosanct space for people to confess their secrets and share their deepest vulnerabilities.

Talkspace’s website promises users that their conversations will be “safe and confidential,” but people may not have as much control as they might think over what happens to their data. Users can’t delete their transcripts, for example, because they are considered medical records.

Talkspace’s privacy policy states that “non-identifying and aggregate information” may be used “to better design our website” and “in research and trend analysis.” The impression left is a detached and impersonal process. But former employees and therapists told The Times that individual users’ anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights.

Karissa Brennan, a New York-based therapist, provided services via Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, including to Mr. Lori. She said that after she provided a client with links to therapy resources outside of Talkspace, a company representative contacted her, saying she should seek to keep her clients inside the app.

“I was like, ‘How do you know I did that?’” Ms. Brennan said. “They said it was private, but it wasn’t.”

The company says this would only happen if an algorithmic review flagged the interaction for some reason — for example, if the therapist recommended medical marijuana to a client. Ms. Brennan says that to the best of her recollection, she had sent a link to an anxiety worksheet.

Talkspace also has been analyzing transcripts in order to develop bots that monitor and augment therapists’ work. During a presentation in 2019, a Talkspace engineer specializing in machine learning said the research was important because certain cues that a client is in distress that could be caught during in-person sessions might be missed when a therapist is only communicating by text. Software might better catch those cues.

Last year, Mr. Frank wrote an opinion article for The Times encouraging people to make their health data available to researchers. “We need data. All of our data. Mine and yours,” he wrote, arguing that analysis of anonymous data sets could improve treatment.

The anonymous data Talkspace collects is not used just for medical advancements; it’s used to better sell Talkspace’s product. Two former employees said the company’s data scientists shared common phrases from clients’ transcripts with the marketing team so that it could better target potential customers.

The company disputes this. “We are a data-focused company, and data science and clinical leadership will from time to time share insights with their colleagues,” Mr. Reilly said. “This can include evaluating critical information that can help us improve best practices.”

He added: “It never has and never will be used for marketing purposes.”

Many licensed therapists sign up with Talkspace for reasons similar to why drivers work for Uber. The company provides a steady stream of clients, takes care of administrative tasks and deals with some insurance issues.

“The beauty of text-based therapy is we are meeting clients where they are, and giving them access to something different,” said Dr. Reshawna Chapple, a Talkspace therapist whom the company made available for an interview. “It’s about convenience for me.”

“The thing that Talkspace allows me to do is to put my hands in a lot of different pots,” said Dr. Chapple, who communicates with 30 clients via Talkspace, treats 15 in person, and works as a full-time professor at the University of Florida. She also has a contract with Talkspace to advise other therapists.

The approximately 3,000 therapists who work on the platform are paid by “engagement,” according to the company, based on the number of words they write to users or how often they talk by video or audio, with bonuses for client retention.

According to multiple therapists, Talkspace paid special attention to their interactions with clients who worked at places like Google, Kroger and JetBlue — “enterprise partners” that provide Talkspace to employees as a perk. (The New York Times offers Talkspace to its workers as a benefit.)

A college professor who provided therapy via Talkspace for two years said the company reached out to her when it thought two clients from Google had been waiting too long for a response.

“Like all businesses, we focus on clients based on size and scope,” said Dr. Leibowitz, the chief medical officer.

Last year, Talkspace introduced a new feature: a button that users could press after sending a message that required the therapist to respond within a certain time frame. If the therapists don’t respond in time, their pay can be docked.

Some therapists on the platform were alarmed, in part because the function required them to work on demand, rather than on their own schedule. More significantly, they asked: Is it harmful to give clients with anxiety and boundary issues a button to press for immediate gratification?

“That’s a corporate model: You need to respond to the customer no matter what,” said Shara Sand, a psychologist with her own practice in New York. “Limit-setting and boundary-setting is part of the therapy. If you can’t manage not to talk to your therapist for four hours, you are very ill and need a higher level of care than a texting app.”

Talkspace is advertised to users as unlimited, “24/7” messaging therapy. “Your therapist will see your messages and respond to you throughout the day,” the company says. Therapists get a different pitch: “Set your business hours, and check in on your clients daily, five days per week.”

The company says the two messages are not in conflict. “I don’t think it’s a discrepancy in expectations,” said Rachel O’Neill, a licensed therapist at Talkspace whose title is director of clinical effectiveness. “It’s not 24/7 therapy, it’s 24/7 ability to communicate.”

Some traditional mental health professionals question the free-flowing format, saying that the benefits of therapy stem from regular, scheduled check-ins — sessions with clear beginnings and endings that help mark progress.

“It’s called the ‘frame’ in psychoanalysis. It’s the room. It’s how long the session will last. How much it will cost,” said Berkeley’s Ms. Zeavin. “Boundaries are really important to the history of therapy. If texting is equated with no boundaries, that’s a real problem.”

There has been limited study into how effective teletherapy is. Much of it either has been conducted by Talkspace itself or has involved therapy via video sessions, not just text.

“Talkspace’s No. 1 priority is quality of care for patients and driving the clinical outcomes desired by patients,” said Dr. Leibowitz. “Talkspace has conducted research in partnership with many of the top academic universities,” he said, adding that the work has yielded “10 vetted papers in peer-reviewed journals.”

Lynn Bufka, the senior director for practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association, or A.P.A., said the research on text-based therapy has been based on surveys of whether people find it satisfactory.

“There’s been much less research into whether there’s a clinical benefit,” Dr. Bufka said. “We would offer cautions around relying on text therapy, particularly when there is greater severity in terms of symptoms. We would urge people to seek direct care, which at this time would be by phone or video.”

In 2018, a therapists advocacy group called the Psychotherapy Action Network wrote a letter to the A.P.A. and to the Olympian Michael Phelps, who has appeared in ads for Talkspace, calling the company a “problematic treatment provider who aggressively sells an untested, risky treatment.” After receiving the letter, the A.P.A. changed its policy on therapy-tech ads and stopped letting Talkspace exhibit at conferences.



In 2019, after Talkspace signed a deal with Optum, a unit of the health care giant UnitedHealth, to provide teletherapy to its two million customers, the advocacy group wrote another letter of “alarm” to the A.P.A. Talkspace sued the group for defamation, claiming damages of $40 million. The lawsuit was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons.

“Maybe their products and services are helpful to certain people,” said Linda Michaels, a founder of the Psychotherapy Action Network. “But it’s just not therapy.”

Until 2018, the Talkspace user agreement said the same thing: “This Site Does Not Provide Therapy. It provides Therapeutic conversation with a licensed therapist.” The company has since removed the clause.

“That is very old,” said Dr. Leibowitz. “The company has evolved quite a bit.”

Mr. Lori no longer uses the Talkspace app. But he is still seeing the therapist, Ms. Brennan, whom he originally met via the platform.

“Even through this toxic company, wonderful things can happen,” he said. “It’s such a sad story in totality, of what the company could have been versus what it is.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t

SAN FRANCISCO — It has become common wisdom that too much time spent on smartphones and social media is responsible for a recent spike in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, especially among teenagers.

But a growing number of academic researchers have produced studies that suggest the common wisdom is wrong.

The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.

Worries about smartphones have led Congress to pass legislation to examine the impact of heavy smartphone use and pushed investors to pressure big tech companies to change the way they approach young customers.

The World Health Organization said last year that infants under a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between the ages of 2 and 4 should not have more than an hour of “sedentary screen time” each day.

Even in Silicon Valley, technology executives have made a point of keeping the devices and the software they develop away from their own children.

But some researchers question whether those fears are justified. They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter. Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.

They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.

The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”

Mr. Hancock’s analysis of about 226 studies on the well-being of phone users concluded that “when you look at all these different kinds of well-being, the net effect size is essentially zero.”

The debate about screen time and mental health goes back to the early days of the iPhone. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a widely cited paper that warned doctors about “Facebook depression.”

But by 2016, as more research came out, the academy revised that statement, deleting any mention of Facebook depression and emphasizing the conflicting evidence and the potential positive benefits of using social media.

Megan Moreno, one of the lead authors of the revised statement, said the original statement had been a problem “because it created panic without a strong basis of evidence.”

Dr. Moreno, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, said that in her own medical practice, she tends to be struck by the number of children with mental health problems who are helped by social media because of the resources and connections it provides.

Concern about the connection between smartphones and mental health has also been fed by high-profile works like a 2017 article in The Atlantic — and a related book — by the psychologist Jean Twenge, who argued that a recent rise in suicide and depression among teenagers was linked to the arrival of smartphones.

In her article, “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation?,” Ms. Twenge attributed the sudden rise in reports of anxiety, depression and suicide from teens after 2012 to the spread of smartphones and social media.

Ms. Twenge’s critics argue that her work found a correlation between the appearance of smartphones and a real rise in reports of mental health issues, but that it did not establish that phones were the cause.

It could, researchers argue, just as easily be that the rise in depression led teenagers to excessive phone use at a time when there were many other potential explanations for depression and anxiety. What’s more, anxiety and suicide rates appear not to have risen in large parts of Europe, where phones have also become more prevalent.

“Why else might American kids be anxious other than telephones?” Mr. Hancock said. “How about climate change? How about income inequality? How about more student debt? There are so many big giant structural issues that have a huge impact on us but are invisible and that we aren’t looking at.”

Ms. Twenge remains committed to her position, and she points to several more recent studies by other academics who have found a specific link between social media use and poor mental health. One paper found that when a group of college students gave up social media for three weeks, their sense of loneliness and depression declined.

Ms. Odgers, Mr. Hancock and Mr. Przybylski said they had not taken any funding from the tech industry, and all have been outspoken critics of the industry on issues other than mental health, such as privacy and the companies’ lack of transparency.

Ms. Odgers added that she was not surprised that people had a hard time accepting her findings. Her own mother questioned her research after one of her grandsons stopped talking to her during the long drives she used to enjoy. But children tuning out their elders when they become teenagers is hardly a new trend, she said.

She also reminded her mother that their conversation was taking place during a video chat with Ms. Odgers’s son — the kind of intergenerational connection that was impossible before smartphones.

Ms. Odgers acknowledged that she was reluctant to give her two children more time on their iPads. But she recently tried playing the video game Fortnite with her son and found it an unexpectedly positive experience.

“It’s hard work because it’s not the environment we were raised in,” she said. “It can be a little scary at times. I have those moments, too.”