THE DIGITAL PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE AND CONSEQUENCES
I periodically get
asked about cell phones and whether they are dangerous. The
short answer is they are not and do not seem to increase the
risk of developing brain cancer or any other form of cancer.
I do worry about cell phones, though. I worry about their impact
on the mental health of young people.
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
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.