Social Media’s Impact on Youth Mental Health: A Growing Concern

With most children and teenagers spending hours a day on a smartphone, CBC’s Christine Birak breaks down what research shows about how using social media is changing kids’ behaviour, if it's rewiring their brains and what can be done about it.

Canadian Researchers Highlight Links Between Screen Time and Aggression, Anxiety in Children

Canadian researchers are raising concerns about the impact of excessive social media use on the mental health of children and teens. According to a recent CBC News report, kids who spend prolonged periods on social media platforms are showing increased signs of aggression, depression, and anxiety.

Emma Duerden, who holds the Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders at Western University, has been at the forefront of studying the effects of social media on the developing brain. Using brain imaging techniques, Duerden’s research indicates a significant impact on children’s brains due to screen time. Despite a slight reduction from the peak average of 13 hours a day reported during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, screen usage remains high.

Duerden’s findings align with reports of heightened depression, anxiety, and aggression among children. “Children are reporting high levels of depression and anxiety or aggression. It really is a thing,” Duerden stated. The research suggests that increased screen time, coupled with parental stress, exacerbates these mental health issues in children.

Doctoral student Michaela Kent and undergraduates Lauren MacIntyre and Kylie Mercado are interested in brain changes in children and teens watching screens.

The study also delves into the biological effects of screen time, suggesting a potential depletion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical to mood regulation. This depletion could be a factor in the observed increase in aggression among children. The research further points out that levels of other neurotransmitters, like dopamine, are also significant.

The issue extends beyond mere mood changes. Michaela Kent, a Ph.D. student in Duerden’s lab, highlighted the struggle of undergraduate students to focus during exams, attributing this to the constant stimulation from platforms like TikTok.

Similarly, Olivia Miller, a young adult from Baden, Ontario, shared her struggles with depression and anxiety linked to excessive social media use, a phenomenon known as “doom scrolling.” Miller has since taken practical steps to reduce her social media usage and now gives leadership talks on mental health to students.

Olivia Miller turned off notifications to restrain social media use.

Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a child and youth psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, notes the predisposition of some children and adolescents to long-term violent behavior when exposed to social media over time. She emphasizes the need for more regulation and parental involvement in monitoring children’s social media use.

Patricia Conrod, a psychiatry professor at Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal, raises concerns about the default settings of social media platforms, which are generally designed for adults but heavily used by young people. Her research found a correlation between social media use and lasting aggressivity in relationships among adolescents.

This combination of 2017-2022 photos shows the logos of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat on mobile devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP

The problem of smartphone addiction extends to adults as well, with Jay Olson, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, finding notable addiction patterns in his study. Olson’s research revealed that a significant percentage of young Canadian women could be considered clinically addicted to their phones.

In response to these findings, Health Canada and Heritage Canada are planning to introduce legislation to address online harms, especially those affecting children and teens. The proposed bill aims to hold online service providers accountable for harmful content on their platforms.