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Social media can alter children’s brains, impact mental health: neuroscientist

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Neuroscientist Emma Duerden says social media can alter children’s brains and have negative impacts on their mental health.

“Social media can have a very specific impact on brain development,” Duerden told CTV News Channel on Friday. “We know that (social media) can act on the stress response system of the brain, but also the reward system of the brain.”

Duerden is an assistant professor at Western University and holds the Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience and Learning Disabilities. Her research found links between screen time and “negative internalizing behaviors” that can lead to stress and anxiety in children.

“The screen changes all the time,” Duerden said. “Especially if they’re sitting in classrooms where they’re constantly receiving notifications, this habitual checking has actually been associated with specific changes in brain regions involved in fear and anxiety in adolescents, it is therefore very worrying.”

Duerden explained how using social media can also release the neurochemical dopamine in the brain. Associated with pleasure, dopamine can be triggered by activities like listening to music and taking drugs. Although we don’t normally constantly feel this kind of “rush” in our daily lives, social media can create a constant flow of rewarding feelings.

“That’s where it really becomes concerning for kids, when they’re using these apps, they’re posting images, they’re commenting on images and they’re often looking for validation,” Duerden added. “They may spend a lot of time online and avoid in-person social interactions, which can lead to loneliness and social isolation and could actually be the cause of some of the mental health problems associated with use social media.”

Four Ontario school boards announced Thursday that they have filed a lawsuit seeking $4.5 billion in damages from Snapchat, TikTok and Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, for creating products that allegedly caused “widespread disruption to the education system”.

Duerden encourages parents to have open dialogues about social media use with their children and to consider reducing screen time if necessary.

“If parents are concerned, really encourage them to limit social media use, limit screen time, have screen-free time during the day or…at meals,” Duerden advised. “Really encourage limiting screen time at least an hour before bedtime, because this is really associated with disrupting children’s sleep, which is so important for healthy brain development.”

You can watch Duerden’s full interview above.

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