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Viviane Poupon is a neuroscientist and the president and CEO of Brain Canada. Jean-François Lavigne is creative director and innovation lead, digital design, at the creative services firm Sid Lee.

The $4.5-billion lawsuit by Ontario school boards against Big Tech underscores a critical conversation about social media’s role in our lives.

These school boards maintain that social-media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok have damaged children’s learning and disrupted school operations. They allege that these platforms are intentionally addictive and marketed to children.

The very architecture of these platforms, optimized to deliver content that captivates users – adults and children alike – drives profit and seems to cultivate addictive behaviours and exposure to detrimental content.

Social-media owners are very aware of the risks the platforms pose to our mental health. For example, internal research conducted by Facebook that it has been unwilling to share with the public hinted at the profound negative effects of Instagram on women’s self-perception. Facebook’s reluctance to make platform changes, fearing revenue loss despite knowing the risks, underscores the necessity for transparency and independent scientific research to fully understand these consequences.

The Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research program is funding early-career researchers who are investigating these questions. Many of these up-and-coming neuroscientists have grown up with and on social media, and they are looking to uncover how it affects brain health.

Among them, Western University’s Emma Duerden is focusing on the real-world consequences of social-media use among children. What did she find? When kids spend hours on their phones scrolling through social media, they can become more aggressive, depressed and anxious. These are some of the problems cited by the school boards as resulting from social-media use, and they maintain these escalating behaviours play a part in rising physical violence and conflict in schools. In the lawsuits, the boards accuse social-media giants of knowingly developing algorithms in their software to create compulsive behaviour to manipulate the prefrontal cortex of adolescents – the part of the brain that manages executive functions such as self-control, time management, organization and planning. Dr. Duerden is now conducting brain-imaging studies to see the effects of social media on the prefrontal cortex in teenagers.

Of course, the pandemic exacerbated the situation, deepening our kids’ relationships with social media. What was supposed to connect young people stuck at home left many feeling more alone. Derya Sargin, a researcher at the University of Calgary, is studying how prolonged isolation during childhood or adolescence interferes with brain development and causes long-term behavioural issues, including social anxiety.

According to one report, more than 96 per cent of online Canadians will be on social media by 2026, illustrating how the issue extends beyond classroom walls to affect our daily lives and mental well-being.

Recognizing social media’s profound impact on public health, British Columbia recently introduced legislation aimed at recovering health-related costs from social-media companies. This legislation, which labels these outlets as harmful, draws parallels to the province’s past legal battles against tobacco and opioid manufacturers.

Our collective well-being hinges on a balanced, informed approach during this transformative period. Our collective response should leverage scientific insights to address the nuanced challenges and opportunities social media presents.

It’s imperative that we, as a society, demand more from social-media companies – not just in terms of content moderation but in the fundamental design of their platforms. The initial promise of social media was to connect us to friends and family, to let us build and join communities, and to bring us together. This experience was replaced by individual echo chambers meant to keep us engaged but dangerously isolated. By restoring users’ autonomy over their social-media feeds and keeping algorithms in check, we not only protect mental well-being but also bolster healthy entertainment, science, journalism and democracy, contributing to a more robust social fabric.

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