There’s only one way in which I disagree with the Children’s Commissioner for England as she’s quoted in this piece in the Guardian: this isn’t just about children and teenagers. This is something adults (including me) who engage online and on social media need to consider. For our own health and wellbeing. The evidence for why we all need to care about this and why some of us need to change our habits is clear and becoming clearer. I’m going to be covering this in many blog posts over the next few months.
That Guardian piece is in response to the timely report from the Children’s Commissioner Growing Up Digital. Today, I’ll talk about the health message and why this is the time for it. Later this week, I’ll talk about some strategies – for families and for us, individual adults.
The health message – why now
I’ve been saying for a while now, in my talks to schools and conferences around the world: we are like children in a sweetshop who don’t know that although sweets are delicious and perfectly fine in small quantities, in larger quantities they have downsides.
Think about these things:
I could also, of course, have added cocaine and other illegal (and some legal) recreational drugs.
They all share two obvious things in common:
- They give pleasure to many/some people but we know that they can be harmful – in different ways and some much more than others
- They can be addictive: certain people in certain circumstances become compulsively attached to them, continuing to use them even when they are patently doing harm
But there’s something else they share. For each of them, there was a time in history when we didn’t know the harm they could cause. We were like those children in a sweet shop. Once we did learn this, we – society, the government, individuals – took steps to use these things healthily (or give them up altogether if, as is the case for cigarettes or cocaine, there’s no healthy or harmless level of usage. Remember that Sigmund Freud thought cocaine was going to be a medical miracle, until he experienced the profound downsides.) Depending on the substance, we made laws restricting usage, controlled them with price, used education so that people were fully informed about the health effects, made rules about advertising. Of course, many people ignore the messages and many people are overwhelmed by the temptations, whether of sugar or alcohol, dragged into a cycle of pleasure and gratification and need thanks to the activation of reward pathways in the brain, the dopamine pathways that make us desire and be drawn to things we know have given us pleasure in the past.
This is where we are today with social media and all that fun, social, exciting, connecting stuff we do online. Same reward pathways, same temptations to repeat again and again and again the pleasures we experience. Those people, of any age, who do not realise the possible downsides are like children in a sweetshop again, not realising that too much sugar risks rotting their teeth, increasing their weight and making them more prone to developing Type 2 diabetes.
What are the possible downsides?
I could write a book on this. Hang on: I am! But LIFE ONLINE doesn’t come out till late 2018, so let me list the downsides that research strongly points to, not just for social media use but other online behaviour, too. Please first, note these provisos:
- Remember, these are not certainties: they are ALL avoidable with careful approach. That’s the whole point of my wellbeing message.
- I totally know that social media etc have huge and multiple benefits. I am NOT against it: I’m just against its dominant over-use. LIFE ONLINE talks about the massive benefits of life online, too.
- For the research supporting all these points, see my Resources section.
Brace yourself. Here’s my list of problems we need to avoid:
- Compulsive over-use taking us away from other things we also need to do, such as physical exercise, face-to-face conversation and reading for pleasure
- Temptation is so strong that we can find ourselves carried away and be late or not leave enough time for work; many people admit to spending more time online than they mean to or would like
- Distraction and “continuous partial attention” – the strong evidence is that people who spend most time allowing themselves to be distracted and to try to multi-task are more distractible and less able to focus for long on one thing
- Mental exhaustion – task-switching uses more mental energy than focusing on one thing at a time
- Lower self-esteem – great deal of research now pointing to over-use of social media (Facebook is most often researched) making us sadder and have lower self-esteem
- Hearing repeated bad news stories (far more often than we did when just accessing news on a couple of TV channels) can lower mood
- Hearing repeated bad news stories can raise anxiety – we are programmed to be anxious when we hear about a bad thing happened, as this primes us for avoidance action; but if we keep hearing things that actually don’t raise our risks at all, we are becoming anxious unnecessarily. For example, in the UK we are statistically less likely to be killed or injured by terrorism now than in the 1970s.
- Loss of ability to read deep, dense text – perhaps an increasing ability to read quickly and skim might compensate in your view, but not in mine. Having noticed my own loss of ability to focus on dense text, despite having a Cambridge Classics and philosophy degree (with metaphysics, and you don’t get much denser and complex than that) I’ve started to carry a complex and long printed article with me and every train journey I’m on I give myself a 20-minute shot of it.
- Poor judgment about whether something is true or not – fake news and false info
- Reading headlines and thinking we know about something – assault on true expertise and deep knowledge
- Cyber-bullying – adults do this outrageously, it must be said
- “Online disinhibition effect” – people online are less careful, less considerate and less responsible for their behaviour, especially when anonymous but even when not
- Retreating into echo-chambers, filter-bubbles where you only talk to people who think like you – shutting down debate: “If you disagree with me you’re stupid and wrong – shut up and go away”
- Nature of conversation changes when a phone is present – becomes shallower, less engaged, avoiding deep topics
- Loss of ability to converse face-to-face, especially with strangers – this is a complicated skill that needs practice; but it’s hard and, for many, unnerving; so we may avoid it if we can
- Lack of mental drifting, thinking, day-dreaming time
- More “friends” than we can manage – friendship needs maintenance: praising, commiserating, advising, responding, reacting, understanding. but we can’t do that for hundreds of people. And the failure to do it is stressful.
- Measuring our self-worth in the number of “likes” or positive responses we get.
- Loss of privacy – our mistakes are out there and can be permanent; the goldfish bowl
- Lowering of empathy
I’d better stop, for the sake of your own mental wellbeing. There are other problems when parents of babies and young children over-use smartphones and social media but if I get into that I’ll be here all day.
Hence the need for us to monitor and judge – and, if necessary, and it usually is – change our behaviour and hence the responsibility of parents to manage this for their children.
That’s why the Children’s Commissioner is absolutely right to raise this as a matter of urgency for children. But it’s why I say that it’s just as important for adults
Look out for Stop Bingeing Part 2, when I’ll be giving suggestions and strategies for having a healthy life online, and for helping your children and teenagers to do so, and I’ll be proposing an Online Wellbeing Pledge.
Please do take a few minutes to fill in my own survey about smartphone and social media use. I need more young people to do it. Yep, I need them to be online a bit more….