New Brunswick

Former doc sees link between smartphones and declining student mental health

A former New Brunswick family doctor is calling for a drastic reduction of cellphone use, especially in schools, after a wellness survey found mental health issues on the rise among students in Grades 6 to 12.

Samuel Daigle compares tech addiction to the opioid crisis and vaping

Former doctor Samuel Daigle would like to see children taught to use smartphones more responsibly. (CBC)

A former New Brunswick family doctor is calling for a drastic reduction in cellphone use, especially in schools, after a wellness survey found mental health issues on the rise among students in Grades 6 to 12.

Smartphones should be kept in lockers, said Samuel Daigle, and only used for "very specific" applications.

Daigle retired from family practice in Bathurst several years ago and started an outdoor adventure company.

It seems "pretty obvious" to him that cellphones exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety and hyperactivity disorder and can even contribute to cases of suicide.

Samuel Daigle says New Brunswickers would be healthier if they put away their smartphones and got outside more often. (Radio-Canada)

"It's weird because we're saying we're more and more connected, but yet more and more people feel that they're socially isolated," said Daigle.

The New Brunswick Health Council reported earlier this week that 48 per cent of the students it surveyed had symptoms of anxiety or depression in the previous 12 months.

That was up from 40 per cent in the previous survey, conducted in 2015-16.

The data was collected from 39,000 students at 187 public schools.

Daigle compared society's growing dependence on smartphones to the opioid crisis and vaping.

"I think we're reacting late to a problem that's going to get worse and worse."

"It's a bit like you're bailing out a canoe or a boat," he said.

"You might want to patch the holes there. … We need to to address some problems underneath."

What happens under the skin in response to screentime, said Daigle, is that the brain's "alarm system" becomes activated.

That diminishes creativity, critical thinking ability and school performance.

In addition, if people only interact through technology, he said, they lose social skills, such as the ability to read facial expressions, pick up on the emotions of others and empathize.

Daigle said he based his statements on a number of small studies about the risks of overexposure to smartphones, dating back to 2011.

As recently as September, JAMA Psychiatry published one that found adolescents who spend more than three hours a day using social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems.

An aid to bullies

Daigle also thinks cellphones facilitate "an unnecessary form of bullying."

"If I was to go in school and bring a camera and take pictures against people's will, I'd probably be carried out of the school grounds," Daigle said.

"Yet it seems to be accepted that people are taking pictures of each other and then laughing and changing the pictures and using it as a form of bullying."

Daigle would like to see New Brunswick schools start pilot projects where they severely restrict cellphone use for a couple of months "and just see what happens."

"I'm sure some kids would really appreciate and would be in favour of that because they wouldn't have that extra social pressure to be on their phone like everybody else."

Stricter rules would probably come as a relief to many students and parents, he said.

New Brunswick leaves decisions about student cellphone use up to individual schools. (Intel Free Press/flickr cc)

Daigle said he's been lobbying his local school district to pilot cellphone bans since last school year, when members of the Bathurst community were meeting to discuss what seemed to be a growing number of incidents of self-harm and suicide. 

He said he asked for support from the New Brunswick College of Family Physicians but received a lukewarm reception because some feel there's not enough evidence to support a ban.

"Companies are spending millions to do studies to prove that this pill works or that gadget is worth [buying]," he said. 

"Unfortunately, the governments have not stepped up to the plate in investing a bit of money to do bigger and proper studies to look at the effects of overuse of smartphones and social media."

The Department of Education leaves it up to districts and schools to set their own cellphone rules, although a spokesperson for the department said the provincial policy on information and communication technologies is under review.

Different approaches

In the Anglophone West district, for example, the use of electronic devices is "fairly prevalent," spokesperson Judy Cole. 

Some teachers get students to use them for online research, while others ask students to put them away during class.

Outside class, students are expected to use their phones responsibly or face disciplinary measures.

The district's policy acknowledges that cellphones can detract from school safety and contribute to bullying.

Daigle expects some people will be offended by his suggestion to restrict use or interpret it as an attack on progress. But he's all for instructing children in the responsible use of smartphones as a tool.

Starts at home

He also sees value in teaching students to think critically about the information they get in social media news feeds.

For those lessons to really sink in, however, Daigle thinks changes in smartphone habits have to start at home.

He suggested eating meals together as a family without being in front of a screen. 

It's unrealistic to "just hope" children will use the technology responsibly, he said.

"We're not even doing it ourselves, as adults."

"Kids and adults too are being enslaved to them like a drug really — and every minute of our lives. Social media platforms are very, very addictive." 

With files from Information Morning Moncton


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