What I learned from talking to students about technology and mental health

Last month I went to School21 to hear what a dozen 16 year olds had to say about technology and addiction. And they had a lot to say. The conversation spanned identity, public spaces, social pressure, distraction, and memes — lots about memes. But what became clear early on was that the relationship between the internet and mental health is complex. For some, social media and smartphones are all-consuming. For one or two, they’re no biggie at all.

Most students seemed to struggle with at least one element of their digital lives: whether it’s playing video games too much, maintaining a glossy life on Instagram or just the fear of being away from a smartphone.

But that does not mean it was all negative: technology can be used to facilitate face-to-face contact (including virtually, through FaceTime) and enable students to have conversations about mental health that are more difficult in ‘real life’. And for those who are shy or consider themselves ‘socially awkward’, the online world made them feel more confident.

I was impressed by how aware students were about the contradictions and compromises that come with using ubiquitous technology. And here are the main things I learned.

Facilitating a discussion at School21 with students (I’m in the centre in the orange jumper)

There are a lack of ‘offline’ spaces

One of the reasons why teenagers rely on their digital devices so much is because there are a lack of public spaces for young people to hang out in. Too young for bars but too old for the park, the alternative is to socialise online, through social media or video games.

Protective parents can also play a part: a teenager may want to go on a nature trek during the weekend, but their parents may not want them to. There may be a perception amongst parents that it’s less safe to do things ‘outside’. So when it comes to talking about the role of screens in teenagers’ lives, it’s important to look at environmental and social factors that may be limiting opportunities for non-screen activities.

A struggle with identity

The way in which tech shapes identity for teens is complex and ambivalent.

On the one hand, some students feel as they are held hostage by preening an online version of themselves. They may feel miserable in bed while claiming saying they’re screaming with laughter online. On the other hand, some are liberated by being able to communicate more openly and honestly about their problems in a way they can’t face-to-face.

Some are horrified by the callousness of anonymous comments and the way it liberates the worst aspects of human beings, while others find it a place to deepen friendships and communicate more easily.

There was also a sense that what you do online influences yourself offline too — in good and bad ways. One student, discussed how consuming memes online influenced his sense of humour, which meant he found things funny in real life that were inappropriate. Another said that she felt that socialising online gave her more confidence, which made her more comfortable having face-to-face conversations in ‘real life’.

“Youtube is Satan” and the rabbit hole of distraction

When students were asked what tools they use the most, Youtube came out on top. While Instagram was seen by some as a tool you “get over” (especially how ‘fake’ it is), Youtube was the ultimate distraction machine. You start at A and quickly squirrel your Z, and then start at A again. One girl went as far as to say that “Youtube is Satan” and warned “don’t go on Youtube if you want to revise.” Managing distraction seemed to be a shared problem for many in the group. Consuming online content is a constant negotiation between what students want-in-the-moment and what they want to achieve.

Self-aware but stuck

Whether it was playing video games for 30+ hours a week, falling down the Youtube rabbit hole, or spending all their waking hours in front of a phone, those who felt that technology was impacting their wellbeing were already aware of it.

“You know it’s fake but you do it anyway” one girl said on how she used Instagram. Another student described how she couldn’t stop thinking about the video games she was playing, especially in class. Two sisters described how they would delete their Instagram accounts at night, saying that they were done with it, only to reactivate them again in the morning.

It’s a frustrating cycle to be in, and certainly one I can relate to, having tried to delete Twitter several times, only to reactivate it for hour-long binges.

Those who struggle most with overusing social media (although it was less clear if this were the case for video games) seemed to have taken some steps for deleting accounts, or trying to change their relationship with it, but not succeeding. These are the cases where it would be useful to support students who are problem aware, but need additional support to nurture healthier habits.

Negative stereotyping of teens and tech is NOT helpful

Stigmatising teenagers as self-obsessed phone zombies who are unable to have face-to-face conversation is counter-productive and, more importantly, not true. Older teens, from my experience, are more articulate and aware of the complexity and the compromises of mediating online spaces, than most adults.

While there are problems with distraction and feeling out of control of certain aspects of their digital lives, the issues are not reducible to a simple cause or platform. When it comes to improving digital wellbeing, we must take into account an individual’s environment, social support networks, pressures and specific habits. It’s vital not to stereotype or generalise teens’ relationship with technology. There will be many who can improve their relationship to technology (just like we all can), but it’s about balance, not demonisation.

An open ear

Above all, I learned that we need to take an empathetic and non-judgmental approach to digital wellbeing. Schools should enable and facilitate open and authentic conversation about the role technology plays in students’ lives. While it’s important not to underplay the potential harms of attention-maximising tech, it’s also important not to exaggerate the dangers or to frame the problems in an irrelevant way.

Young people often face the same struggles as adults: getting distracted (and feeling guilty about it), knowing that face-to-face conversation is important (but sometimes not having the confidence or the opportunities to do so) and resorting to ‘unhealthy’ online habits when there is nothing else to do.

While many of the core frustrations are shared across generations and individuals, it’s also important to acknowledge that everyone’s circumstances are different. The key is working together while being sensitive to individual needs and habits.

In search of balance

I asked them what a life tech balance would look like. A student stated that it depends on the person. It’s different for everyone, and recommends that any student who has a serious ‘addiction’ an app should consider deleting it.

Another said: “What I do now, except I get 3 As for my A levels”. Isn’t that all of us? Allowing us to have fun and connect with friends while still succeeding at our goals?

I found that spending an hour talking about technology and wellbeing in the classroom was more valuable than a year binge-reading articles on the perils of technology online. Perhaps we should take a break from the panic-driven stats now and again, and, well, have a face-to-face conversation.

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