Freedom of Thought, Social Media and the Teen Brain

Policy Brief No. 9

February 12, 2024

Social media offers spaces where young people can socialize, learn and play, but these digitally mediated environments also challenge the right to freedom of thought, as surveillance capitalism and attention economics push content harmful to young people’s mental health. Brain development during adolescence leaves young people particularly susceptible to social pressure, peer opinion and social comparison, and recent high-profile media investigations have raised concerns over social media’s impact on teen depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Discussions around young people’s rights online have largely focused on privacy and freedom of expression. But the increased impact of social media on the way we think, feel and behave provides a new opportunity to evaluate challenges around teen mental health and well-being on digital platforms through the lens of freedom of thought. Samantha Bradshaw and Tracy Vaillancourt write that policy solutions should focus not on outright technological bans but on measures to restrict exploitive platform design features and on investment in media literacy education to empower teens, parents and teachers to use social media in ways that foster health and well-being.

About the Authors

Samantha Bradshaw is a CIGI fellow and assistant professor in new technology and security at American University.

Tracy Vaillancourt is a CIGI senior fellow and a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa.