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Social media warning labels and school cell phone bans: Do they unlock better youth mental health?

June 21,2024

Ottawa: This week, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for health warnings on social media for younger users. This recent call follows an earlier Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, also published by the Surgeon General.

Health warnings on social media would be analogous to the ones seen on cigarette packages, serving as reminders to parents and youth of the mental health risks of social media. The Surgeon General also called for schools to become phone-free environments. Although in his op-ed, Murthy acknowledged that research on these topics is not yet conclusive, he also noted that we “don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information.”

Concerns over smartphone use and social media’s impact on child and adolescent mental health are far from new. But they have been reignited because new warnings are being suggested and put into place to limit their use. Smartphone bans or restrictions have been enacted in countries around the world although how these restrictions work in practice varies. Several Canadian provinces are also implementing such restrictions.

Although these efforts are well intentioned, and seek to support youth, research supporting these practices is still unsettled. As researchers in child development and psychology, we feel it is essential to review related research and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of smartphone bans and social media health warnings.

Our research shows that greater screen time is associated with negative physical, behavioural and cognitive outcomes. One reason why screen time may be problematic is it interferes with other activities that are associated with well-being, such as physical activity, interactions with family and friends, and academic pursuits.

Some, but not all studies show that social media use is associated with more anxiety and depressive symptoms in adolescents. The pressure for social validation and gaining likes and followers can increase stress and anxiety in youth. Moreover, social media can result in cyberbullying and negative social interactions, which are in turn associated with poor mental health.

Social media use in adolescents has also been associated with body image issues, particularly in girls. Social media can present filtered and unrealistic beauty standards that lead to dissatisfaction with one’s own body.

It is important to note that these studies are correlational, and do not imply causal evidence.

In terms of the impact of smartphones on attention, usage can be distracting to youth. For example, research shows that students can take up to 20 minutes to refocus after being distracted by their smartphones.

The benefits and drawbacks of cell phone bans

Banning smartphones from classrooms will likely lead to fewer student distractions, particularly for youth who are experiencing more difficulties in school. Without the need to police smartphone usage, teachers can also focus the classroom more on academic learning.

Smartphone bans may also help protect youth against cyberbullying that can happen during class hours. However, smartphone bans in schools will not eliminate cyberbullying, which can occur in off school hours, so it remains critical to educate students, parents and teachers about recognizing, preventing, and addressing cyberbullying.

In contrast, banning smart phones in school could have detrimental impacts for some youth. For example, LGBTQ+ youth use social media to form a community where they can get support, share information, and develop their identity. Limiting access to a space where they can feel safe and feel like they belong could exacerbate their mental health difficulties.

Source: Healthworld

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