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Experts talk social media risks in youth

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Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Niverville Citizen


It should come as no surprise to anyone that the years following the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed difficult things about human nature. Not the least of these insights is the negative role social media now plays in the lives of many young people.

Driven to physical isolation during the first two years of the pandemic, youth naturally turned to social media to maintain relationships and stay connected.

But experts say this screen time obsession hasn’t tapered off much since the restrictions were lifted.

“Emerging evidence published since the Canadian Paediatric Society’s 2019 position statement on digital media use by school-aged children and adolescents correlates social media use and adverse mental health impacts—effects that have magnified since the onset of the pandemic,” says the Canadian Paediatric Society’s (CPS) website. “Evidence gaps exist on the long-term impacts of social media use and overuse due to novel technologies, but there are enough red flags to warrant action. We are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis that demands meaningful and conscientious mitigation measures.”

Long before the pandemic, parents and experts alike were already recognizing the detrimental effect of social media on children in terms of broad content exposure and online behaviours such as sexting and cyberbullying.

According to the CPS, though, screen time remains a defining factor in the research on healthy media use among kids.

Based on a study of students across Ontario and Alberta, the CPS says the average high school student spends more than 7.5 hours per day on various screens. For many of them, much of that time is spent on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat.

However, it’s not just older teens who are overly engaged in screen time.

“Three-quarters of Canadian parents are concerned about how much time children spend using media, reporting 36 per cent of their 10-to-13-year-olds spent three hours or more per day using digital devices for reasons unrelated to school work,” says CPS.

Emma Duerden, the Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders at London, Ontario’s Western University, says some statistics paint an even more dire picture.

According to Duerden’s research, screen time today is down only slightly from what some parents were reporting as the norm during the early months of the pandemic. At that time, reports indicated 13 hours a day on screens for six-to-12-year-olds was common.

Using brain imaging to study the impacts of social media on children’s brains, Duerden has found obsessive use is increasing the levels of childhood depression, anxiety, and aggression.

“I think this is a public health issue,” Duerden told the CBC.

In response, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, put out a call in May recommending social media platforms include health warnings on their sites and apps similar to those found on cigarette packs.

Murthy has been said to criticize tech companies for unleashing powerful technology without providing adequate safety measures or accountability.

Shortly after, Canada’s Minister of Health, Mark Holland, also went public on this subject—although he didn’t agree with Murthy’s conclusion. Warning labels wouldn’t be helpful, he said. Instead, parents should be having these conversations with their kids.


But where does the responsibility lie—big tech, the regulators, or parents? In Unger’s mind, the onus falls on all three.

“Even we as adults struggle with self-regulation,” she says. “But teenagers’ brains don’t finish developing till they’re 25, so to expect them to self-regulate something that is very reinforcing and is designed to be so, is not realistic.”

That doesn’t mean they can’t be coached, she adds, but it would serve parents well to enforce screen time rules. These might include switching off the Wi-Fi or turning in cell phones at a certain time of day.

Without question, the best way to reinforce any family policy is to model it.

“There’s research to show that high use [of screens] in parents equals high use in kids,” Unger says. “And high use with parents affects the parent-child relationship as well.”

Another question many parents struggle with an answer to is when their child is ready to own their own cellphone device. In Unger’s opinion, this shouldn’t happen before they turn 12.

“For some parents, if the child is independently transporting themselves, like walking to school, they might want to have a cellphone for safety and that sort of thing,” says Unger. “But I would challenge parents to think about why their child would need their own device. So if there is a need that it meets, that’s what I would use as my parameter as opposed to, ‘Well, their friends have one.’”

It’s a tricky dance, though, when parents don’t want to be the reason their child becomes socially ostracized. One strategy to address that, she says, would be to collaborate with the parents of your child’s friend group in order to come to a mutually agreeable age at which the majority feels their kids will get cell phones.

The prohibitive cost of giving every member of the family their own cell phone also needs to be considered for many families.

Signs to Watch For

Unger says there are a few signs parents can watch for when it comes to determining if their children are struggling due to social media overuse.

Parents should pay attention to how engaged their child is when trying to converse with them face to face. Are their marks at school suffering? Do they tend to isolate in their rooms or become quiet in public? Do they get anxious when you suggest they put the phone away to do an activity with you?

Finally, how much time are they spending in person-to-person connections with friends and how much physical activity are they engaged in regularly?

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