A new study released by Statistics Canada investigates the harmful effects of social media on Canadians, and the results do not offer a positive outlook, particularly for young people.
The study involved 14,000 Canadians ages 15 and older and was conducted between November 2018 and March 2019. Respondents came from all ten provinces, but residents of the territories were not included in the study.
Canadians ages 20-24 were the most likely to use social media, although only slightly more so than those between ages 15 and 19. Usage otherwise dropped with age. It also found that women were more likely to use social media than men, but men were more likely to use multiple social media platforms than women.
The study examined why and how people use social media and how different uses may affect the mental and emotional wellbeing of users. The study divided social media uses into four categories: keeping up with family and friends, sharing content with family and friends, sharing content publicly, and following current events.
The parameters of physical, mental, and emotional health used by the study were divided into six outcome categories: lost sleep, trouble concentrating, less physical activity, feelings of anxiety or depression, feelings of envy, and feelings of anger.
Roughly one in five Canadians reported having lost sleep, impaired concentration, or lower levels of physical activity as a result of social media use, while one in six reported feelings of anxiety or depression, envy, and anger.
The numbers differed by demographics. Younger Canadians were broadly more likely to experience all of the negative effects of social media than their elders, with the youngest age group experiencing the most negative effects in all outcome categories except for feelings of envy, which peaked for Canadians ages 20-24.
Users of multiple social media platforms are also more likely to report negative outcomes as a result of social media usage, with reported negative outcomes increasing for every additional platform a user engages with. Users who described themselves as "intense users" were also more likely to experience negative outcomes across all categories and demographics.
Women are more likely than men to experience negative effects from social media, a result which was especially notable for feelings of envy. Nearly twice as many women reported feelings of envy as a result of social media use than men did.
Such feelings of envy are most prevalent among users who use social media to keep up with family and friends, consistent with the idea that social media drives social comparisons, causing people to feel envious of others. Other studies have shown that this is particularly prevalent among women, who often feel the need to compare their own body images to those of others.
Social media users who use such platforms to follow events reported greater concentration impairment and anger than other users, with the latter result providing credence to the theory that social media is a major driving force behind political polarization.
The study does have some drawbacks, which the paper readily acknowledges. "As previously highlighted, studies have shown use of social media to be correlated with both positive and negative outcomes. One limitation of this study is that only the latter are considered. A second limitation is that social media use is not assessed against broader measures of wellbeing, such as self-assessed mental health or life satisfaction," the study reads.
The former point is especially important, as studies on the matter have reported both positive and negative outcomes resulting from social media usage.
Some terms such as "intense smart phone users" were left undefined and could be subject to misreporting. The study also does not establish a causal link between negative outcomes and social media practices apart from the personal opinion of respondents. For example, while social media usage may indeed cause sleep deprivation, the causal link could also be backwards, with insomniacs being potentially more likely to use social media due to lack of things to do late at night.
The study also did not take into account which specific platforms Canadians were using. Many have argued that some platforms such as Twitter are more likely to induce anger, while others such as Instagram are more likely to drive feelings of envy.