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Young brains are especially vulnerable to social media: experts

The effect of social media on developing brains is once again under the microscope after some of the largest social media companies were named in a lawsuit initiated by four major Ontario school boards.

One expert told CBC Toronto youth are particularly susceptible to social media’s barrage of content, because their brains are still being developed.

“For young children and for teenagers, their brains really aren’t wired to be able to process excessive rewards,” said Emma Duerden, Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience and Learning Disorders in the Faculty of Education at Western University.

“We’re not supposed to be receiving them all the time,” Duerden said, adding that children don’t have the same brain mechanics as adults for managing things like social media.

Duerden says the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is central to planning, decision making, evaluating future consequences and weighing risks and reward, isn’t fully developed at the age of adolescence.

“They’re not going to be able to put those brakes on,” she said.

Duerden also said that both sleep and exercise, essential for healthy brain development, go down as screen time goes up.

Blonde woman in a black blazer and white blouse.
Emma Duerden holds the Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

The four school boards are alleging in multiple lawsuits that the social media giants have interfered with their ability to promote student well-being and are harming students’ ability to learn.

The public district school boards of Toronto, Peel and Ottawa-Carleton, along with Toronto’s Catholic counterpart, are seeking a combined $4.5 billion from Meta Platforms Inc., Snap Inc. and ByteDance Ltd., which operate the platforms Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok respectively.

The statements of claim say their social media products “were deliberately designed to manipulate the developing brain of students to promote excessive, compulsive and unsafe use of their products.”

Richard Lachman, an associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University, says it’s easier for youth to be lured into continuously scrolling social media platforms as they try to fit in with various social groups.

“We know that adolescence is a time with a lot of experimentation with identity,” said Lachman, adding that adults are more secure with themselves and better equipped to process what they see online.

Lachman says there is not only definitive evidence of the harms associated with sustained social media use, but knowledge of that within the technology companies that designed those platforms.

“There have been report after report saying technology was designed with full knowledge that there were potential harms. In some cases students of psychology, social psychology, were designing in order to encourage addictive behaviour,” said Lachman.

A man with a grey and black beard, wearing glasses and a polo t-shirt, is pictured
Richard Lachman is an associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University. (Submitted by Richard Lachman)

Meta did not respond to our request for comment, while Snap said in a statement that its platform was designed to be different from traditional social media, without the typical likes or public comments.

Tik Tok responded to CBC News, saying it has safeguards such as parental controls and screen time limits for users under 18. 

Duerden acknowledges social media’s effect on youth mental health is a public health issue, but says when it comes to social media, parents need to model behaviour for children.

“I think awareness is really key,” said Duerden.

Half of the parents surveyed in a new study admitted spending too much time on their phones and are sharing information about their own kids online, she said.

“They’re showing their children, ‘This is what you do as an adult.'”

And those children are learning that their parents are getting a lot of attention from it, she said.

“Limiting screen time to particular hours of the day, or having screen time free zones, for example in the house, can really help with limiting the overall amount of screen time that children and adolescents are receiving,” adds Duerden.

She says parents should learn the recommended age guidelines for screen time and help their children follow them.

Lachman said that without proper regulation for social media companies, it often falls on individuals or groups to self-police, but there are other common sense things people can do to limit use like turning off auto-play, notifications and push alerts.

“Blanket bans are not the way. This technology is a part of us,” said Lachman, adding that we need to be sophisticated in how we approach technology addiction.

That’s something Natalie Coulter, director of the Institute for Research on Digital Literacies, agrees with.

Natalie Coulter is pictured
Natalie Coulter is the director of the Institute for Research on Digital Literacies. (Submitted by Natalie Coulter)

“To tell kids to stay off it — it’s not going to work. Abstinence-based things don’t usually work.” said Coulter.

She says temporarily deleting apps, keeping phones out of the room, setting timers, taking breaks from technology and talking to kids about their social media habits are all things people should consider.

“The whole thing is designed to keep you scrolling,” said Coulter, adding that people need the same mentality with social media as going into a casino, where every single thing “is designed to keep you there.”

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