A special inquiry into the long-term impact the accelerated reliance on digital technology over the Covid-19 pandemic may have to our well-being suggests we need to plan for a ‘hybrid world’ (UK Parliament, 2021). This future embraces the flexibility of virtual and face-to-face work, communication and connection and the benefits both can bring – it also recognises that we want and need opportunities for real human interaction.
The call to embrace the benefits of both ‘worlds’ makes me think about how often we hear about screen time/time spent online in a negative context – the cons are emphasised; the increased sedentary lifestyle, impact on our well-being, decline in social skills and rise in anxiety and dissatisfaction with life from comparing our lot to others. Those who seem to be losing the ability to maintain eye contact, drawn by the pull of the screen in the palm of their hand are (rightfully?) judged and ‘digital detoxes’ are called for, with nostalgia for a pre-digital era.
However, the benefits of the online world are numerous, and with over 4.5 billion active internet users worldwide these benefits are diversifying and growing. The last year has highlighted how quickly we can adapt to new routines/methods of engagement with education, work, medical appointments, socialising and shopping largely moving online (with different degrees of success) for many. So how should we be addressing the topic of time spent online with youth when we’ve all increased our reliance on it?
We can start with social media. Daily social media use can impact youth both positively and negatively. Social media choice is vast – from TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, gaming forums to the oldie’s favourites – Twitter and Facebook, the list is ever-growing.
Offering opportunities to interact with others, social media creates feelings of both closeness and disconnection; it allows adolescents a platform to express themselves but also creates concern over what others will think; access to information can inspire/interest as well as distress/overwhelm; browsing can provide entertainment and also boredom/apathy and we can admire others and be envious of them (Weinstein, 2018). Yes, issues such as low self-esteem, unhappiness with physical appearance, depression and feelings of hopelessness can be exacerbated (Crenna-Jennings, 2021). But self-confidence and self-acceptance can also be inspired by body positive or body neutral influencers, by interacting with peers who have shared experiences/identities and by engaging in social activism and having your voice heard via online platforms.
There’s no doubt we are living in a world where we increasingly move seamlessly between our online and face-to-face lives and it’s important to take a balanced approach when addressing the topic of time spent online with youth. Within our schools we should focus on developing the skills to navigate the online world in a positive and healthy way, raising awareness of both the pros and cons of online engagement, valuing the different benefits the virtual and face-to-face worlds offer us and learning when we should be switching off and looking up.
Crenna-Jennings, W. (2021).Young people’s mental and emotional health: trajectories and drivers in childhood and adolescence. Education Policy Institute & Prince’s Trust.
UK Parliament (2021). Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World. House of Lords, Covid-19 Committee.
Weinstein, E. (2018). The social media see-saw: Positive and negative influences on adolescents’ affective well-being. New Media & Society, 20(10), 3597-3623.