Phone stoned

Late last year a survey of youth mental health in New Zealand suggested there’s been a  huge increase in the proportion of young people presenting as being at high risk of developing significant issues. What’s worse, the increase is recent and rapid (from 5% of 15 – 24 year olds showing a high risk profile 5 years ago, to over 11% now). One doesn’t want to be alarmist about such things, but if the trend is real then that’s a catastrophic social failure. Other countries have shown similar increases over the same period, although it’s not uniform, but there’s enough to suggest causal factors common across many countries. Given the time frame, many of the usual suspects (poverty, family stress etc) don’t appear to fit. In the New Zealand context they’ve been entrenched problems for decades now. The increase in a general ferment of anxiety and dissatisfaction accords with our experience in schools, where counselling networks report being overwhelmed, and in the classroom there has become a distressing normalisation of such suffering as part of the backdrop. There’s a clear and urgent need to identify causes and then think about how to deal with them.

This is one of those situations where immediate response is needed, but getting solid answers as to what is going on will require a much longer time frame. Times like this, too strict an adherence to evidence-based practice can be detrimental. If we can find at least probable cause, then there’s an argument for experimenting with interventions before all the data is in. One strong suspect in all of this is the changing face of the digital world. It fits the timeframe well: in particular, wifi is now ubiquitous (schools have felt obliged to show how progressive they are by providing this service at significant cost) and smart phones are so everyday that the term itself has become antiquated – it’s just a phone. What this means is that our young are now connected, 24/7, to the world of social media. They carry the world’s incessant, churning view of themselves in their pockets. In class, the compulsion for them to constantly access this highly modified and curated conversation is evident. The term phone-stoned is not hyperbolic,and the fidgeting, restlessness of the addict is on easy display, as are the calming, stupefying effects of connection. That we have given our kids easy access (indeed encouraged access) to this digital drug, is inarguable. Whether its consumption can be blamed for rising mental health problems is less clear.

Here I have to own a complete lack of expertise, having been a careful avoider of social media since its inception. Last week, however, needing to get a sense of the structure of a social media platform for the sake of a novel I’m working on, I ventured into the remarkable world of Facebook. Suffice to say it took me less than twelve hours to disable my account, having seen in that time all I needed to and more. What struck me, as an outsider looking in, was a deep sense of gratitude that we didn’t have this particular outlet when I was growing up, because I would have been an avid user (what choice does a young person have?) and it would have damaged me. Here, briefly, are some of the things that I sense could be causing that damage:  

It is incredibly well designed for addiction. As the creators of pokie machines worked out a long time ago, it is the nature of the reward that keeps people coming back, a reward sufficiently irregular that it can not be predicted, yet sufficiently frequent that ‘maybe next time’ remains a credible belief. Here the deluge of coins is replaced with the infinitely more alluring prize of being noticed and approved of. This in turn leads, of course, to the constant curating of the online self, the onerous task of presenting, not just in the moment, but in this more lasting format. Seeing the great care with which otherwise balanced adults (the folk the great monster suggested I might befriend) had taken in presenting themselves visually to the world was somehow shocking. And this presentation in turn, of course, creates an echo chamber of endless joy and success: photographs of idyllic holidays, successful diets, marvellous meals (seriously, photos of food, I thought this was a piss take, not so much). Think how oppressive this must be for the young, whose default setting is fear of inadequacy.

The relentlessly visual nature of the format is also somehow terrifying, the stuff of communication now an image, the endless mapping of every detail of the external shell. That old fashioned mode of communication, of framing thoughts and feelings with words, of reading and responding in the moment to the nuance of gesture and facial expression, to listening with heart and mind both, seems to have given way to an ever more detailed analysis of skin pores, fat distribution and fashion choices. Hard to believe kids might find that difficult to cope with. Along with the comic book shallowness of the picture and caption world, there is also the very nature of the network, to connect as many people as possible, so that a kind of flattening out occurs, where the attention of the masses is prioritised over deeper connection with the few. And the more lives we are exposed to, the more naturally rises our fear of missing out, the more carefully we must attend to maintaining the interest of the world. For the young this means staying awake at night far past an hour conducive to mental health, and by day living with a constant, anxious awareness of this netherworld of judgement, ever the parcelling out its attention. And, as every generation apparently must now relearn, there is a world of difference between the intemperate comment that dissolves into the ether, and that committed to permanent record. (Didn’t we work this out with Nixon?)

All of this is obvious, I know; it is hardly news that this level of connection makes the young incredibly vulnerable to a sudden torrent of disapproval. When things go wrong socially now, this false connectivity has a devastatingly amplifying effect. I still can’t quite imagine what it would be like for a young person to have their world turn on them in such an overwhelming manner. The capacity too for anonymous, or at the very least distant, commentary, allows the perpetrator to be removed from the damage they do, and this along with the seductive pull of the pack leads to a critical failure of empathy. Then there is the very language used, the Friends, Likes, Feeds, Sharing… this reductive infantilising of human interaction which somehow feels provides a metaphor for the greater problem.

And yes, undoubtedly social media does a number of brilliant things, reconnecting old friends, allowing families to stay in touch when geography conspires against them, providing unfiltered information flow for the disenfranchised, and letting deeply positive social movements cohere and grow. If there were not such incredible benefits, the thing would hardly exist. And Facebook is hardly the only culprit here, it’s just the format I took a look at. But I can not escape the feeling that we have unleashed upon the young a kind of madness they never asked for, and that it’s now hurting them in ways we’re only beginning to see and understand. There’s no turning back the clock, but as always, we can surely be much more active in the decisions we make about using technology, rather than having it use us.

Finally, I must tell of the delightful parting interaction with the connection monster, for upon choosing to leave the service an automatic menu is insisted upon the user, asking to tick the box to best describe their departure. I ticked ‘Isn’t useful to me’ and came back the robotic reply – perhaps this would be more useful if you had more friends. Would you like to stay connected and make more friends? The reply I wished to give at that point was not, unfortunately, offered to me. At least it let me leave with a smile, and without a backward glance.

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