The 12th to 18th of November is Psychology Week.
An initiative of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), Psychology Week is in its 14th year this year. That is 14 years that the APS has been chasing you around asking you to be its friend 🙂
The theme of Psychology Week in 2017 is “Thriving in the Digital Age” which is a gentle way of letting you know that no-one is following your Instagram account.
To celebrate, the APS have some interesting content up already on their site “Compass for Life” on the topic of surviving the digital age.
I spent a bit of time on the site today and here are some of the takeaway messages I think are worth noting, including links to relevant material where necessary:
There are generational differences in attitudes and practices around social media and the internet
I’m going to make some big generalisations here but hear me out: I’m 40 years old. I remember a pre-internet life and a post-internet life. A good chunk of my childhood and adolescence involved tech, so I am pretty comfortable with it but we also spent a lot of time without tech, and certainly did not have mobile devices.
Related to this I find that people of my generation tend to distinguish between their online world and their offline world. We are the ones that tend to complain about the balance being wrong – i.e. the digital world (e.g. emails, texts) overtaking our everyday life. We are the ones who have driven much of the literature on the benefits and dangers of social media/internet use.
In contrast, my parents’ generation lived a big chunk of their lives without the internet, without computers and mobile technology. I find that they describe it more as a curiosity or annoyance, depending on their level of skill and interest. I don’t tend to hear them complain about tech-life balance because they are not seen as competing forces – tech is just one part of a varied life.
Finally those of you < 30 (Millenials, Gen Y) have pretty much grown up with computers/ internet/ mobile devices as a central and unquestioned part of your life. From my experience, you are much less likely to make a distinction between your online world and your offline world, as the two are so closely intertwined, there really is no distinction. I also find you tend to be less concerned about the negative impacts of social media (assuming you aren’t actively being cyberbullied), but are also the most vulnerable to its effects, as its involvement in your life is questioned a lot less.
Regardless of generation, the internet and social media is now so pervasive in our lives that we need to educate ourselves on how it can help and hinder us, in the same way we’ve had to learn what foods nourish or damage us (Jocelyn Brewer calls it Digital Nutrition)
When the dangers of cigarette smoking were identified unequivocally, public health policy sought to drastically limit access, through public education and treatment, taxes, plain packaging and restrictions on advertising. When trans fats were identified as causative of chronic illness, their use in food products was drastically curtailed.
Whilst there are documented (predominantly mental health related) negative impacts of social media and the internet (e.g. cyberbullying, depression/anxiety, gaming addiction), drastic restrictions are unlikely to be implemented, as the internet and social media have too many positive impacts: education, business, communication, recreation, innovation.
The responsibility therefore falls on us as individual citizens to educate ourselves and each other about the benefits and pitfalls of internet/social media use. I liken it to the responsibility we each have to learn what foods are healthy or unhealthy. My generation, who have arguably created and profited most from this area, owe future generations an understanding of the likely impacts.
So what are some of the things worth learning?
- Having a constant flow of news at our disposal (have you noticed that Twitter and Facebook feeds never end!) opens us up to both fake news, and a constant flow of negative news. Because humans are wired to notice and process negative content more readily, it is easy to overload on such content, leading to depression and anxiety.
- Similarly, a constant flow of updates from our friends and family provide excessive opportunities for social comparison. Given that most people try to put their best foot forward on social media (impression management), it doesn’t take much scrolling through friend’s updates of their holidays/achievements/weight loss start to make you feel inadequate.
- Whilst the jury is out on whether internet addiction is a real thing, gaming addiction does seem like a genuine threat. Games (computer, online, console, mobile) are designed to be highly engaging and encourage repeat use (like Poker Machines). That time you got hooked playing Fruit Ninja was real, and for some, the addiction can destroy their lives.
- Similarly, social media sites use well known psychological principles to encourage extended use. Ever feel like you are hooked on Facebook? It’s cause Facebook’s design provides the perfect storm of mindless scrolling, intermittent reinforcement, social comparison, new and novel content, and the illusion of connection. Also, these sites provide no ‘stopping cues‘ to let us know when to stop using them.
- Spending more time on social media is not associated with better outcomes. If you are hoping that more use will make you “better” at it, I’ve got some bad news. No studies appear to show that more social media use is better. Typically higher social media use is associated with negative mental health outcomes.
- Humans are oddly wired to use significantly more screen time for activities that don’t make them happy, versus activities that do make them happy. For example, it turns out I am much more likely to spend time browsing Facebook, than reading a good book. It is not screen time per se that is the issue, but how that time is spent.
- There are trolls everywhere and the internet is a delightful place for them to hang out.
- Doom and gloom aside though, there are significant and real benefits of the internet and social media if used intelligently (see next section). Such benefits include developing our own sense of identity through creation of content (e.g. making youtube videos) and joining of online groups and societies; as well as opportunities for social connections that enhance our professional or personal lives (e.g. reaching more customers).
- Blocking access is probably not the answer, even with younger children and adolescents. Teaching people how and when to access is more likely the solution.
There are specific things you can do to take control of your internet and social media use
Enough waffle Gareth – just get to the point!
Just like there are now guidelines for what constitutes a good diet, there are increasingly guidelines (albeit much less well defined) for what constitutes healthy internet and social media use.
Take some time to informally assess your social media use
Do you do any of these mildly red flags:
- Spend most of your time just browsing, rather than contributing or posting. Whilst passive use can contribute to stress and envy, active use (i.e. posting, commenting, creating) is assocaited with greater well-being.
- Spend a lot of time comparing your own life to the highly cultivated lives of others online.
- Is the content that you post commonly negative? Whilst authenticity online is important, the regular and repeated posting of negative content might suggest a mental health issue, which should be addressed professionally, not through social media.
- Does your technology use blur the boundaries between work and personal lives (e.g. taking an answering work emails in the evening)? Look, if you love your work and honestly don’t mind doing work out of hours, then cool. But if not, create clearer boundaries between work and personal time.
- Do you find yourself motivated to use social media out of boredom, loneliness or depression? Perhaps those issues should be addressed elsewhere.
Try one of these strategies for managing your internet/social media use
- Turn off notifications – those constant reminders that someone has interacted with your content are highly addictive little dopamine bursts
- Designate specific activities as being strictly ‘no mobile’ – e.g. dinner or the hour before bed-time
- Engage airplane mode for weekends
- Make pre-commitments to being off-line at certain times and inform others of these rules (e.g. set autoresponder emails for key working periods during the day)
- Utilise software that can block your technology use – https://getcoldturkey.com/ – http://offtime.co/ – https://inthemoment.io/
- When on social media, make specific effort to use it for identity formation or connection activities.
- identity formation – post unique content related to your interests and activities
- connection – comment on other people’s posts/ like them/ private message them
- Ignore trolls
- Charge your phone outside of your bedroom
- Each week specifically organise social events that are offline
- Read more here
The internet and social media are not going anywhere (barring some kind of post apocalytpic scenario), just like McDonalds isn’t going anywhere. And in the same way that you’ve had to stop yourself from eating junk food everyday, and instead hunting down the occasional vegetable, you are going to have to learn how to consume social media and the internet responsibly. I hate to leave the responsibility with you – I know you already have a lot on your plate, but Mark just isn’t answering my calls or showing any willingness to delete that Facebook thing.
If you’ve found great ways to balance or moderate your internet and social media use, I’d love to hear them, so I can share with others.
Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)