Surviving and thriving in the digital age

Dr Richard Graham is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of Good Thinking: The London Digital Mental Well-being Service, who will be talking on the subject of surviving and thriving in the digital age at the upcoming Royal Society of Medicine meeting, Digital mental health for children and young people on Monday 3rd December.

Social media and the digital age can bring great advantages and improve quality of life. However, there are some significant concerns about how it is impacting on children and young people. For the last 15 years, in my capacity as a adolescent consultant psychiatrist, I have seen the negative effects that too much screen time can have on child mental health. The growth in social media, online gaming and streaming services like Netflix has been exponential and we are playing catch up when it comes to determining the long-term effects on young people.

What is clear is that it can result in the same outcomes and patterns of behaviour as we see in other addictions when some young people can’t seem to stop doing something even though it is causing them harm. 

What is clear is that it can result in the same outcomes and patterns of behaviour as we see in other addictions when some young people can’t seem to stop doing something even though it is causing them harm. 

When I was practising at the Tavistock Clinic in London, I had clients who were at the extreme end of this, spending up to 16-18 hours a day on screens, and they were often eating poorly, severely sleep deprived and dropping out of education. I was so concerned by what I saw, that I set up a clinic specifically to help people, mainly boys and young men but some young women also, with addictions to gaming and social media at the Nightingale Hospital in London in 2010.

But there are many other children and young people who spend six hours a day on social media and gaming who are still able to maintain a relatively normal life. The pull is obvious. Peer pressure helps to draw people in and there is genuine risk of social isolation if you don’t get on networking sites and start playing multiple player games with your school friends after lights out. It also appears to be a glamorous world of rich rewards. One Fortnite player who makes Youtube videos talking through tactics makes millions of dollars and recently features on the Ellen Degeneres Show in the US.

Young people who manage not to eat well, sleep and do their school work are affected too, not least because they are possibly reducing their chances of achieving their full potential.

The period around adolescence is a crucial time for brain development when the body and brain are prepared for adult life under the influence of multiple hormones and bodily processes. You need to respect biology and make time to eat well, sleep for the required time, build relationships, foster ambition and a sense of purpose to realise your potential at this key moment in your development. There is a danger that sitting too much in front of a screen will disrupt and inhibit this stage. It is interesting that the CEO of Netflix said that the streaming channel’s main competitor is your sleep. The auto-play feature at the end of interminable episodes literally makes it difficult to stop watching. The notification time to allow you to switch off before the action kicks off again is just five seconds. Ironically, Netflix is a subscriber services and doesn’t actually need to keep people glued all the time, but it is like an arms race or gold rush mentality has taken over, and they want to be the ‘most viewed’.

The whole digital economy is designed to keep people on screens as long as possible, for advertisers. This then can become a habit for young people, and they can start t feel it is all out of their control. They can start to lose the ability to make proactive choices, exercise free will and notifications can even start to feel like harassment.

The whole digital economy is designed to keep people on screens as long as possible, for advertisers. This then can become a habit for young people, and they can start t feel it is all out of their control. They can start to lose the ability to make proactive choices, exercise free will and notifications can even start to feel like harassment.

We need providers like Youtube and Netflix to agree to act responsibly and provide tools for people to use social media well without causing harm. Facebook and others should be treated like utilities – like water and power; we can’t manage without them – which means they should be regulated to provide clean, safe content we can rely on.

Education agencies need to grapple with how to help young people interact positively with social media and harness their genuine passion for all things digital in a constructive way.
So what can we do and how can we help our young people?

Safety
It is crucial that we teach young people about safety and how to look after themselves online. This may mean protecting themselves from strangers in multi-play video games or online forums or reducing the chance they will be subjected to cyber bullying by avoiding certain anonymous networking sites. It is very easy to be confronted by disturbing or age inappropriate material so young people need to learn how to reduce this risk.

Resilience
They need to learn how to think critically about what is actually being said or reported and check facts for themselves. Youtube videos can be entirely made up. So-called news stories may be false. Self-control may stop them acting too soon, giving them time to think it through.

Digital activation
This is a concept I came up with to help people use social media well. So instead of just scrolling passively through news feeds, soaking up distressing things you can’t change, try and find ways to interact with family and friends in a positive way. Use the internet to organise face to face events or stream active conversations to a wider circle.  Use social media to improve access to activities you find rewarding by joining clubs and locating yoga classes, dog walking groups or art classes – whatever you like to do.

Digital detox
Just like any other part of the body, the over-stimulated brain can become exhausted and needs a break. A digital detox can help reset the clock and break harmful habits. Removing screens and access to phones, even for a short period of time to let the brain recover. It’s critical to get the balance right.

Dr Richard Graham

Dr Richard Graham

Dr Richard Graham is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of Good Thinking: The London Digital Mental Well-being Service.
Dr Richard Graham

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