Main worries about youth social media use, looks to guidelines as possible solution

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Are mental health workers in Nunavut aware of the harmful effects of excessive social-media use by youth?

This is the question posed by Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main in a member’s statement and in questions to Health Minister George Hickes in the legislative assembly March 4.

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main is concerned that Nunavut youth who over-use social media and the internet may experience adverse mental-health effects. He looked to Health Minister George Hickes to his department develop safe-use guidelines.
photo courtesy Legislative Assembly

“There is a developing body of research on the link between mental health issues and social-media use, and I should add that there are some positive benefits to social-media use that have been backed up by research, but specifically I am talking about excessive use of social media and particularly among young people,” said Main to Hickes.

“Are mental health workers Nunavut aware of this matter and the fact that it is developing? Are they being kept current, so to speak, with the developing research in this area?”

Main had previously told the assembly he was becoming disconcerted.

“Facebook, the social media platform is perhaps the most widely used software used for surfing the internet, as some people are becoming habituated with being on-line in Nunavut, obviously, and perhaps more so amongst the younger people,” said Main.

“Apparently, when they need to constantly check their status that means internet addiction, with more researchers finding out the negative effects of this medium, and this is especially concerning for young people here in Nunavut as they already face mental health challenges and in light of the internet becoming widely available in Nunavut.”

Main likened the internet addiction with addiction to cigarettes.

“It is much like the 1960s and 1970s with cigarettes, when the health impacts were largely unknown about the cancer-causing effects of cigarettes,” he said.

Main also said elders are noticing.

“Many elders are starting to complain that many of the youth are not interested in talking with them anymore. They are all hunched in front of their small screens and locked in their own world,” he said.

Hickes said, as a father of two teenaged girls, he is aware of how screen time is encroaching on time spent outdoors and active.

“That being said, with regard to the professional development of our mental health workers, technology is a topic that comes up frequently on how to use it safely. I’m not sure if the actual screen time is a part of their training. I know there are resources available that we’ve used to help educate people on how much screen time is safe,” said Hickes.

But Main wanted to know if Health has evidence of a trend relating mental health and excessive social-media use in Nunavut youth.

Hickes did not specifically address social-media use in his reply. He did say there is a trend of people accessing more services.

“People being more cognizant and reducing that stigma of approaching health care professionals, mental health workers, to communicate more openly with their friends and family,” Hickes said, adding he’d be seeking supplementary funding for this budget line.

“With regard to social media itself, we all are becoming more and more involved and seeing more and more instances of how social media can be a good thing, like the member says, but it can also create challenges for our youth.”

Noting the British health department is producing guidelines on the maximum amount of time young people should spend on social media, Main suggested that if Nunavut parents and youth had access to similar GN-created guidelines they could better understand how usage affects mental health.

Main sought a commitment from Hickes for such guidelines.

Hickes said there are national resources, such as mediasmarts.ca, which has tips for managing screen time, parenting the digital generation, helping kids deal with cyber bullying, social media and their kids.

“We have also worked with Facebook on developing a way for users to anonymously report friends that are posting distressing posts and to help with Health Canada resources,” he said.

“I’m sure my officials are already listening, but I will follow up with my officials to look at putting out a media campaign or some resources (in) the community so that parents can have some established guidelines of how much is deemed safe by experts in the field.”