TORONTO -- Around 1 in 5 Canadians report losing sleep and being less physically active due to social media, according to a report released by Statistics Canada.

The study, entitled “Canadians’ assessment of social media in their lives” was released Wednesday in Economic and Social Reports and uses data from the 2018 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS) of self-reported negative experiences from use of social media apps or websites.

Of the respondents aged 15-64, approximately one-fifth said they had lost sleep (19 per cent), engaged in less physical activity (22 per cent) or had trouble concentrating on tasks (18 per cent) as a result of social media use in the previous 12 months.

Around 1 in 8 (12 to  14 per cent) of those reported negative emotional experiences such as anxiety or depression, frustration, anger and envy over the lives of others.

Jacqueline Sperling, Ph.D., Director of Training and Research at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital and instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, says that social media use provides opportunities for “social comparison.”

“People will share a selection of their lives, not their full lives on social media, and so users will only see a snippet, and that is a reference point for their own lives,” Sperling said in a telephone interview with Wednesday. “And people typically do not share their most unflattering photos or unpleasant experiences. Users may then look and compare that to their own lives and that may make them feel bad about themselves.”

Sperling said the “unpredictability” of social media – “will this photo get likes? How many comments will I see?” -- means that it has a reinforcing nature.

“Research has found that it can activate certain areas of the brain - the reward areas of the brain - and that it's caused by that unpredictable central reinforcement, so it can strengthen that,” Sperling said.

The association between social media and negative experiences was higher in younger respondents, with about 47 per cent of 15-19 year-olds and 28 per cent of 20-24 year olds reporting losing sleep from social media use. 

Between 24 and 36 per cent of 15-29 year olds reported having trouble concentrating on tasks.

Negative emotional experiences due to social media use were also more prevalent in younger users.

Around 20 per cent of respondents under 30 reported feeling anxious or depressed, and 18 to 24 per cent of teens and people in their twenties and early thirties reported feeling envious of the lives of others.

Sperling says those findings track with past research on the subject.

“That's exactly what we're seeing, the younger in age the child starts [using social media], and particularly for younger females, the greater the negative impact,” she said.

“Adolescents, their brains aren’t fully developed just yet, also in terms of inhibiting impulse control…their peers play an increasingly important role at that age, their peers’ perspective has even greater impact on their opinions. They are still growing and learning who they are. This is a time where they're getting a lot of feedback, whether it's welcomed or not, intended or not, on these platforms,” she said.

Those numbers decline with older users, with 16 to 21 per cent of respondents aged 25-49 reporting lost sleep, and 13 to 18 per cent of users aged 30-49 reporting concentration issues.

Only 12 to 15 per cent of respondents aged 30-49 reported anxiety or depression and 11 per cent of respondents in their mid-thirties to forties said they felt envy.

Statistics Canada data says that 78 per cent of Canadians who were regularly online in 2018 used at least one social media account (such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram), with that number shooting to more than 90 per cent for teens and those in their twenties and thirties.

More than half of the respondents aged 15-24 reported using three or more social media accounts, which led to them experiencing three times the negative experiences – lost sleep, trouble concentrating and feelings of anxiety, depression and envy – than those who had a single account, the report said.

Sperling said one way to address the issues outlined in the report is conducting “behavioural experiments.”

“It's one thing for me to just tell a teen something and I think it's much more powerful if they get to collect the data themselves and see the direct impact on them,” she said.

Sperling suggests social media users rate their mood on a scale from one to 10, with 10 denoting the most intense emotions, before and after they use the sites to see if users’ moods might be more intense afterward.

She suggested they try that a few times and see if the ratings change if they reduce the number of sites visited or the time spent on them. Shifting social media use to times of the day when one’s mood might be less vulnerable to fatigue could also help. Sperling also said users can explore what happens to their mood when they select only certain profiles to show up in their newsfeed. Repeating these experiments can help them find an approach to social media that doesn’t make them feel worse, she said.

Social media users in Canada who are struggling with their mental health can find resources in their communities listed at and Wellness Together Canada.

Canadians experiencing mental health crises can visit the Crisis Service Canada site to find resources in their area.

The Kids Help Phone is available is available 24 hours a day for Canadians aged five to 29. Call 1-800-668-6868 (toll-free) or text CONNECT to 686868, or download the Always There app for additional support.

The Hope for Wellness Hotline is available for all Indigenous persons across Canada who need immediate crisis intervention. Call 1-855-242-3310 (toll-free) or connect to the online Hope for Wellness chat.

Hope for Wellness telephone and online counselling is available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.


This article has been updated to clarify Jacqueline Sperling's professional title at McLean Hospital.