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Mental health of young people, is social media the new toxin?

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Mental health of young people, is social media the new toxin?

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Is social media the key factor in worsening mental health among younger people? At the moment the role of the internet in the development of the thinking of children and adolescents is complex and varied and the studies dealing with this topic have not yet reached a single agreement. Some research seems to demonstrate a negative impact of prolonged use of social networks on the development of selective attention and concentration skills, critical thinking, creativity, long-term memory and more complex decision-making and communication processes. Other studies, however, argue that the impact of social media would lead over time to the use of new neural connections, already present in our brain, but not exploited so far, and to the consequent development of new cognitive and sensory abilities.

In fact, since the early 2010s, rates of adolescent mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression took a sharp upward turn and have been increasing ever since. Even more worryingly, in the decade to 2020 the number of emergency room visits for self-harm increased by 188% among adolescent girls and 48% among male peers. But the suicide rate among younger people has also increased by 167% and 91% respectively. The same trend has been observed in many European countries.

For social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, this mental health crisis is being driven by the mass adoption of smartphones, along with the advent of social media and addictive online games. In his latest book he even calls it “the Great Rewiring of Childhood”. But if we refer to Paracelsus’ maxim, the dose that determines toxicity is not known: is it the content, duration, use or all of these things together? Not to mention that unlike chemical toxins, there is little consensus on regulation and control, so the basic principles have yet to be tested. Furthermore, research tends to focus on young people, a cohort that is easier to study than minors. This must change to understand if a childhood no longer based on games, but on the smartphone, can really alter the development of children’s brains.

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An ongoing effort in this regard is the University of Birmingham’s Smart Schools project. Education expert Victoria Goodyear is comparing mental and physical health outcomes among children who attend schools that have limited cell phone use with those who attend schools without such a policy. The study protocol, described in BMJ Open last July, involves 30 schools and more than 1,000 students. While we await the results, there is no doubt that children today live in an unrestricted digital universe devoid of any security guardrails, because social media platforms were not designed with them in mind. Furthermore, it is crucial to ask whether excessive use of social media can alter the brain development of the little ones.

«Our genes change depending on environmental stimuli, including social interactions, including digital ones. The point is to understand how social media is used and for how long – explains Giovanni Biggio, full professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at the University of Cagliari, member of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and among the speakers at the Sinpf-Sinpia conference to be held in Cagliari on 16 and 17 May – Geneticists already told us two years ago that the evolution of genes is going at a crazy speed, in the space of a single generation. This means major changes in the space of a few decades whereas previously they occurred after 100-200 years. And all this, obviously, also and above all involves our brain. The current generation is therefore a transition generation and, today, some of those who use the internet excessively are genetically more vulnerable, therefore weaker, and run the risk of becoming victims of new tools.”

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