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Bigger Kids

Is Social Media Rewiring Our Children's Brains?

Some of Canada's largest school boards think so and are suing tech giants Meta, Snapchat and TikTok.

Is Social Media Rewiring Our Children's Brains?

Educators and health experts around the world have been raising the alarm about the negative effects of social media on children’s behaviour and development for years. Last week, U.S. Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murthy, declared social media unsafe for kids’ mental health. Now some of Canada’s largest school boards are taking their complaints to court.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Peel District School Board (PDSB), Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) are joining forces to bring legal action against tech giants. They allege that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok are responsible for creating platforms and content that significantly disrupt student learning. The lawsuit claims that these companies design their products to be compulsive, fundamentally changing the way children learn and rewiring kids' brains.

[The] inherently addictive nature of social media platforms can hamper a student's capacity to absorb knowledge. Social media has an undeniable toll on student mental health which cannot be overlooked,” says Brendan Browne, Director of Education, at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. That toll also has a financial impact on school board budgets which must respond by providing in-school mental health programming and other supports which can stretch to billions of dollars across the province.

The action demands remediation of these costs from the tech companies who report astronomical profits from platforms that have been found to “lead to pervasive problems such as distraction, social withdrawal, cyberbullying, a rapid escalation of aggression, and mental health challenges” according to Colleen Russell-Rawlins, Director of Education, at the Toronto District School Board.

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How Social Media Affects Kids

“What’s happening in social media is the equivalent of having children in cars that have no safety features and driving on roads with no speed limits,” said US Surgeon General Murthy. “No traffic lights and no rules whatsoever. And we’re telling them: ‘You know what, do your best—figure out how to manage it.’ It is insane if you think about it.”

Three-quarters of Canadian youth own a smartphone and in a 2022 study, 40 percent of them admitted that they use their devices in class to communicate with their friends without their teachers knowing.

Frequently checking social media is compulsive and one study found that it changes the way adolescents' brains develop. The passive scrolling associated with watching endless unvetted short video clips is particularly damaging. A study reporting on the behaviour of 4,000 Canadian adolescents found that kids “learn and develop aggressive attitudes over time due to social media use.”

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Sound scary? It is. A recent article in The Atlantic reported that depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide rates have risen among teens since the 2010s when mobile phones became ubiquitous among youth. And academic achievement has been dropping in the U.S. since 2012.

What can parents do? Research shows that setting limits and teaching kids about social media effectively curb the negative side effects of time spent online.

Is Social Media Rewiring Our Children's Brains?

Teach your kids healthy technology habits

Follow these tips to take back control and keep your kids safe online.

Set clear boundaries: Establish specific rules regarding screen time limits and appropriate content for different ages.

Model appropriate tech use: You are your children's first teachers and your smartphone habit is affecting your kid. Model healthy tech use by putting your phone down when you interact with your child, during mealtimes and as you get ready for bed.

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Make bedrooms tech-free: Prevent screen addiction in kids and safeguard their sleep by powering phones off an hour before bed and keeping them somewhere central to charge.

Have an analog day: Regularly commit as a family to enjoying a day together without any devices. Enjoy a new sport, go hiking, listen to live music, explore your local area or do arts and crafts.

Teach online safety: Teach your kids about online privacy, security, and the importance of treating others with respect and kindness in digital spaces.

Use parental controls: Set parental controls on devices and apps to monitor and limit access to inappropriate content and manage screen time.

Foster open communication: Create an environment where your children feel comfortable discussing their online experiences, concerns, and questions without fear of judgment.

This article was originally published on Mar 28, 2024

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