Newshub Nation: Researcher says social media changing kids' brains, wants it treated like other addictive substances

A Kiwi researcher says social media is changing the way kids' brains are developing and wants it to be treated like any other addictive substance. 

A report released in May by US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy warned social media use is a main contributor to depression, anxiety and other problems in teenagers.

The report found up to 95 percent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 say they use a social media platform, according to the report. About a third say they're scrolling, posting or otherwise engaged with social media "almost constantly".

Following the release of the report, New Zealand's response has been pretty muted, which has upset health researcher Dr Samantha Marsh. 

She told Newshub Nation on Saturday when reports like Murthy's comes out, people always respond to it showing the small benefits. 

But she believes there is enough evidence showing the harm it's doing to young kids to call for change. 

"In New Zealand, in the media, often we have this very balanced approach. A study will come out showing social media has this negative impact and that is always counted by somebody saying yes but there are these benefits, so we need to kind of balance it," she said. 

"But I think that's a flawed argument now because we have enough evidence to say this is really harming our kids." 

She told Newshub Nation co-host Simon Shepherd when parents consistently hear the argument it's all about balance with social media, then they'll often take the "path of least resistance" and not remove devices from their kids. 

Dr Marsh said new research is starting to emerge showing screen-based activities are structurally changing our kids' brains - and not in a good way.

"In that particular study, they took nine to 10-year-olds and looked at how much screen time they were using and then followed them. Two years later, they looked at changes in their brain and they saw a pattern of change in the brain that was similar to what you would see with someone who starts drinking alcohol at a young age, which is quite significant," she explained. 

"But not only that, but that structural change in the brain explains some of the impacts we are seeing on anxiety, so it began to explain some of the things that the research was suggesting was happening." 

She wants to see more research into what can be done to help families and schools, so our kids can benefit. 

Dr Marsh believes the first thing New Zealand can do is ban smartphones from schools. 

"They shouldn't be in there. These are powerful little computers that are designed to be highly addictive and we are putting them into the hands of our kids and sending them to school and expecting school to be more interesting than social media and gaming," she said. 

Dr Marsh admitted there are benefits to social media and smartphones, but they don't get close to outweighing the negative effects they're having on Kiwi kids. 

"You have to balance it up right, you could say there are benefits to smoking. You could say with smoking, it helps keep your weight down, helps relax you with that breathing in and out, but you have to look at it and we're talking about developing brains here," she told Newshub Nation.

"This is a critical time of adolescent brain development for these quite small benefits... but that same group is also being exposed to harmful content as well, so even within that benefit there is a balance." 

Dr Marsh also pointed out that spending a lot of screen time is taking away from things kids need in order to take that developmental leap into adulthood.     

She told Newshub Nation kids were fine before the creation of social media, so if it was removed from them now, then they'll still be fine. 

"It's a hard question to answer, I can't predict the future but we can look to the research that is there now and we can also look back and look at how our children were before this time and they were fine," she said. 

"We don't need social media and access to always being online and connected, we don't need that to thrive and what do we want for our kids? I think every parent should be asking themselves why does my kid need social media."

Watch the full interview for more. 

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on Three & Three Now, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.