There is no doubt that smartphone use has become pervasive in our society. In a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, 95 per cent of teens reported having access to a smart phone. Some 45 per cent of teens reported using the internet “almost constantly” (a number that has doubled compared to the 2014-2015 survey), while another 44 per cent said they go online multiple times per day.
There are obvious advantages to our newly wired world. It is now easier than ever to find a recipe for blueberry muffins and to keep in touch with family and friends spread out across the globe. But the rise of social media has had some downsides. Even teenagers, the prototypical early adopters of any new technology, have mixed feelings about the impact social media has had on their lives. In the Pew Research Center poll, one in four teens thought social media has been mostly negative, with about half thinking the effects have been mixed.
The negative potential for social media was highlighted in two recent studies. In the first, researchers found that in a cohort of 6,595 U.S. adolescents, those who used social media more than three hours per day were at increased risk for developing mental health problems. The risk was principally seen for internalizing problems such feeling lonely, sad, depressed or anxious rather than for externalizing problems like acting out or behaviour difficulties.
The second study was an analysis of more than 12,000 teenagers in England. English teenagers were even more active on social media than their American counterparts. Two in three teens ages 15 to 16 used social media multiple times per day. The researchers also found that teens who used social media multiple times per day were more likely to report psychological distress, less life satisfaction, less happiness and more anxiety than those who used it only weekly or less often. An interesting aspect of the study was that the negative effects of social media were more prominent in girls than boys. While both boys and girls showed an increase in psychological distress, the magnitude of the increase was higher in girls (18 per cent) than in boys (5 per cent).
What was also interesting about the study from England was that researchers identified three factors that seemed to explain much of the increased unhappiness. Cyberbullying, decreased sleep and less physical activity accounted for much of the psychological distress, although again more so in girls than boys. While bullying has always been a problem in schoolyards, cyberbullying brings the problem to a new level and we have been slow to adapt to it. Add to that the sleep deprivation that comes from hours of scrolling through social media feeds late at night, and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of today’s youth, and it is understandable why this technology seems to be depriving teenagers of the happiness they deserve to have.
Ultimately, technology is neither good nor bad. How we use it, determines what impact it has on our lives. There are many advantages to this digital age, but allowing young people unfettered access to the sometimes toxic environment of social media seems to be harming them psychologically. We can’t police the internet and sadly many hateful people will use the internet to say many hateful things. But there is something we can do. We can put our phones down, go outside, and share a memory the old fashioned way.
Christopher Labos is a Montreal doctor and an associate with the McGill Office for Science and Society. He also co-hosts a podcast called The Body of Evidence.