If you are in distress, you can call or text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Hands down, Rachel Kingston’s biggest parenting challenge is trying to manage her 13-year-old daughter’s social media use.

“My daughter was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder last year,” Kingston (a pseudonym to protect her family’s privacy) explains, “and I think some of her chronic anxiety is tied back to social media. Unlike some families, we haven’t had to deal with body image issues or being bullied, but I really worry about the lack of down time and true rest she gets.”

Kingston, a Calgary mother of two, says that her daughter’s social media use became a problem during the lockdown, when it represented the only form of social life available. It hasn’t tapered off since, though, and Kingston worries about the impact it might have on her nervous system. If it were entirely up to her daughter, there’d always be a YouTube or TikTok video playing in the background, no matter the activity—baking, drawing or even having dinner.

“If we put on a show to watch as a family, I look over and see she’s also on Snapchat,” Kingston says. “The kids don’t really care about my concerns.”  

We know, for sure, that Kingston isn’t alone. Aside from casual banter about wresting kids away from screens in parent circles, five school boards in Canada are taking legal action against social media juggernauts that own Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram.

Neinstein LLP, the Toronto law firm that represents the school boards, has claimed (in a written statement) that social media products are “intentionally designed for compulsive use,” and the “addictive properties of these products have compromised students’ ability to learn, disrupted classrooms and created a student population that suffers from increasing mental health harms.”

Conversation starter

The lawsuits, as well as the even more recent proposal to crack down on problematic smartphone use in Ontario’s schools, have provoked a lot of conversation. Not everyone thinks measures like these are warranted, especially the young people in question, some of whom feel their freedoms are being curtailed.

One CBC Toronto story found several East York Collegiate students didn’t support the lawsuits. One student said if she was still doing well in school, she couldn’t see how it was affecting her negatively. Another said he didn’t want to be told whether of not to use social media and argued that it was up to him to choose. He went on to say that teachers should try taking phones away instead of suing a company. A little over a month later, the provincial government did just that, when it announced a partial ban on smartphones in schools. That policy is roughly in line, incidentally with UNESCO recommendations, which last year, advocated for school smartphone bans, arguing that they were distracting and bad for students’ mental health and well-being.   

There’s a mounting pile of evidence to back this up. Jonathan Haidt, author of the new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, was moved to write on the topic when he discovered a “surge” of mental illness diagnoses in the undergraduate population of the United States. Between the years 2012 and 2019—roughly the period in which smartphone ownership became ubiquitous—anxiety and depression rates more than doubled (by 134 percent and 106 percent, respectively).

This evidence, of course, is based on correlation—not iron-clad causation. That said, neuroscientists have been working on figuring out the mechanisms that might make children more susceptible to problematic social media use, as well as more likely to experience negative mental health impacts.

This is your brain on social media

“The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that tells you, ‘I should put this device down now’ develops much later and children are really lacking that ability,” says Emma Duerden, Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience and Learning Disorders and Assistant Professor at Western University in the Faculty of Education.

Having trouble controlling impulses and not knowing when to put a device down is only one piece of the problem. Another factor has to do with the fact that children learn a lot through rewards-based learning, which makes them particularly susceptible to compulsive use.

“With children, you can see behaviour change very quickly if you offer them a candy or a cookie to get them to do something they don’t want to do,” Duerden continues “Children’s brains are hard-wired to respond to rewards and social media really acts on that system, because it’s designed to be highly rewarding with all the likes, comments and notifications.”

She notes that exposure to stressful images at a young age is a well-characterized pathway to serious mental health issues in late childhood.

“Content is basically completely unregulated in social media,” says Duerden. “Television, movies and even video games have to undergo some sort of examination from regulatory bodies.”

Although his focus is on children at present, Jonathan Haidt’s research into adolescent mental illness grew out of his work on the role smartphones have played in amplifying the “long-known weaknesses of democracy.” Although harder to measure than mental health diagnoses, as everyone knows who talks about living in the “stupidest timeline,” political dysfunction is clearly on the rise as well.

“I would say that social media and, more generally, devices, have been an accelerant of the erosion of civil discourse on campus,” says Professor Randy Boyagoda, University of Toronto’s first adviser on civil discourse.

Boyagoda notes that because we use our devices so much, it’s become hard to see how important it is to have in-person interactions.

“I would say that the near permanent mediation of our lives by our devices has made it difficult especially, I think, for students, and in a different way, for faculty, to understand the irreducible importance of embodied face-to-face encounters,” he explains. “We would rather turn to our devices – as either mediums or as shields, frankly – from that type of encounter.”

Boyagoda says that, in his experience, discourse in both classes and faculty meetings was less constructive, more pointed, and more critical when they moved online during the pandemic than when they were held in person.

“You may still have pointed or critical comments, but they are received in a different way because, again, of the unembodied account,” he adds. “I can see the person’s body language and they can see mine. They can hear my tone. I can see their tone. I can tell when someone in a room isn’t fully with me on a point, and I want to understand why. All of that is only possible in person.”

Not going anywhere soon

None of this is to say that the erosion of mental health and civil discourse is monocausal. Or, for that matter, that all young people will react to social media in the same way. University of British Columbia professor of psychology Amori Mikami advises we need to approach social media as merely another form of communication that we figure out how to use it so that it serves us, as opposed to the other way around.

“I feel there’s a lot of talk and discussion about the negatives about social media and how it can harm mental health,” says Mikami. “And let me be clear, I think it can. But I don’t believe it’s an inevitability and I think there are ways in which it can benefit mental health too.”

Mikami feels a lot of problems stem from people who use social media as a passive consumer and just “ride the social media wave” to see where it takes you. “You need to ask questions like, ‘What am I getting out of this interaction?’ ‘What is the benefit?’ and ‘How do I feel afterwards?’ so you can make informed choices about what social media to engage with or when to engage.”

Social media, everyone agrees, isn’t going anywhere. But we need to find ways to use it appropriately that go beyond advice to turn off notifications and change our smartphones’ display screen from colour to greyscale (although these are both very effective).

In The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt prescribes collective action on a number of fronts, including encouraging children to engage in play and immersion in real-world communities in meaningful ways. And, for the sake of civil discourse, this can’t end when we graduate from high school. 

“We need a demonstration, to faculty and students both, that there is something irreducibly good about the act of thinking out loud with someone else,” says the U of T’s Boyagoda. “And that can best be done, hands-free, you know, without a device involved.”

He continues: “We need to recognize and reckon with disagreement and difference and see these as good things, insofar as they can lead to mutual understandings and increased shared understandings of a common issue, and ideally contribute to the common good.

“And to the pursuit of truth.”

Further reading: Is E-Mental Health Support Right for You?

Resource: #ChatSafe: A Young Person’s Guide to Communicating Safely Online About Self-Harm and Suicide.

Christine Sismondo has a PhD in history and writes regularly about a wide range of topics covering contemporary societal issues. She is a previous National Magazine Award winner and frequent columnist for the Toronto Star.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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