I can still remember my heady excitement at that flashing envelope icon on the front screen of my 1990’s Samsung clamshell and the hypnotic ‘beep’ that came with it.
Oh, the anticipation of emotions released on opening! Russian Roulette within which spun a text from my parents wondering whether I was up to no good (I probably was) or the first boy I ever loved – jackpot!
There was no internet-laden smartphone, not really much internet in general come to think of it, just enough for a quick hit of endorphins brought on by that shimmering handset.
Today things are way more intense. This week, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield warned in her report Life in Likes that social media is exposing children to significant emotional risks as they transition from junior to secondary school.
This transition is notoriously tricky, but when I was that age (I’m a millennial) there were no HD photos to share, no selfies to be retouched. Even later (before Facebook but at the same time mobile phones became a mainstream accessory), if there was any fun to be had it was in person or over the phone through the dying art of actual conversation. Texting was just too expensive.
Life was still difficult. Navigating hormones, emotions, the opposite sex, the same sex – all through real-time, physical interactions. This real world is no more.
In her study, Longfield researched eight groups of 32 children aged eight to 12 and found that the main social pressure was to be constantly contactable and connected, with children describing this as an important expectation of their friendships, and fallouts over not being responsive enough.
Some Year 7 children in the study described how receiving notifications from across the social media platforms was stressful to manage. It’s true, this constant connection is overwhelming. I’m sure most people, especially those who work in digital or with businesses to market, feel this information overload every single day. Imagine this at the tender age of 12.
Everyday life is accompanied by our choice of technology which sit at our hips like pets – and yes, it probably does cultivate a need for acceptance, for likes and that primal feeling of belonging to a group, even if said group doesn’t really exist apart from on WhatsApp.
Smartphones rob us of intimacy too – all interactions based on instant reactions without the added dimension of… you know, real people. Then there are all the other usual suspects – sexting, porn, photoshop… but the demons that lurk through the digital world don’t scare me half as much as the deeper implications – those psychological and hidden. These pose far greater a risk.
The real concern is not a generation of the needy and narcissistic, as most will initially assume, instead it’s far more damaging. The side effects of constant connection is that there is no time to process negative emotions. This danger lies with the same mental health issues that in some way affect us all. Co-dependency, using something outside of yourself to feel OK, addiction, the inability to live in the present moment, etc. These skills are difficult to learn.
by Gemma Rowbotham