The internet has vastly changed our lives, but as well as huge benefits there are downsides. We all need to understand how this wonderful medium affects us so that it remains a tool and not a tyrant, and why looking at our screens is so tempting – even addictive.
It comes down to biology and how we survive and succeed. We’re programmed to be social, to make connections with other people. Humans need to live and work together, to get help from each other, sharing burdens and knowledge.
We’re curious, too; drawn towards discovering and trying out new things. We like to learn but we’re also easily distracted and have a tendency to be anxious. The internet and social media give us opportunities to be all these things in bucket-loads.
But research suggests that technology addiction is easier to control and cure than issues with substances such as alcohol. We simply need to learn how to manage our social media and screen use and use it to our advantage.
FRIENDS & OVERSHARING
Meeting people can sometimes be difficult. Maybe you’re naturally shy or live in a rural area where there aren’t many people. Social media can help with making friends and keeping in contact with them. There’s also research suggesting that not having any access to screen time and social media can have a negative effect, particularly for young people.
If you spend too long online, you risk not making time for things that are important to health and wellbeing, such as exercise and face-to-face conversation. Or you won’t leave enough time for your work, which you end up rushing or not doing well. You may miss opportunities to stretch your mind with hobbies and new experiences. There is also the possibility that you lose control and become dependent on technology, finding it harder to stop. It’s also easy to overshare personal information and feel disinhibited.
- Set yourself targets and do the things you should do before spending time on social media so that it is a reward.
- Don’t share anything until you’ve had time to consider it. Think of posting online as similar to crossing the road: you wouldn’t do that without stopping to look both ways.
- If you have been angrier or ruder than you intended, read your messages back to yourself the next day and remember the feeling when they make you cringe so you don’t do it next time.
- Remind yourself that people can easily get the wrong impression and think of that as you post.
- Don’t post anything you would mind being seen by your family.
- Check privacy settings on apps and devices.
- Don’t be on social media if you’re not comfortable with it. Lots of people stay away or use it carefully.
- Don’t post images of or stories about people without their permission. Would you like it if they posted things about you that you find embarrassing?
THE DANGERS OF SEXTING
Taking, posting, sending, threatening to send or even possessing an image that could be considered intimate or sexual of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal in the UK, even if the photo is of the person sending it. Often young people at the start of a relationship feel under pressure to send pictures of themselves. If you are concerned about your child, here’s what to advise them to do…
- Ask yourself what would happen if you said no. Would they break up with you? If so, do you want to stay with someone who would do that?
- How would you feel about strangers seeing a sexual photo of you? Once you’ve clicked ‘send’, you’ve lost control of it.
- Think of ways to reply to pressure to send a naked photo, for example, ‘If you liked me, you wouldn’t ask’ or ‘I’m better than a photo’.
- If someone sends you anything you think falls into this category, report it immediately.
- The Child Exploitation and Online Protection organisation gives great advice about what to do if you’re worried about behaviour online and also what to do if you’ve already shared a photo.
HOW TO AVOID INFORMATION OVERLOAD
The internet allows us to quickly access pretty much every fact that has been recorded, which makes life easier in so many ways. We are better at skim-reading, grabbing key facts and reading quickly, which is a useful skill in this busy age.
If you spend too long online, you risk not making time for things that are important such as exercise and face-to-face conversation
Information overload can lead to tiredness and poor processing. Everything you read requires concentration and brain activity. When you process information, your brain cells use energy in the form of oxygen and glucose. So the more you take in, the more quickly you’re going to use up energy and become tired. There is also evidence that we are becoming less good at deep reading – not making the effort to understand difficult texts.
- If you’re feeling tired or less able to concentrate, take a ten-minute screen break.
- Delete some information sources such as apps and switch off notifications where you can.
- When you need to focus on a piece of work, close down other windows on your computer and put your phone on silent and out of sight.
- Once a day give yourself time for focused reading, perhaps before bed, with devices off.
- While reading be aware of where your mind is. If it keeps wandering, go for a short fast walk and drink water, then go back to the task.
- While reading, imagine someone is going to ask you to explain to them what you have read.
Protecting your child’s privacy online
Under the new Data Protection Act, websites and apps will be subject to a tough code to protect children’s privacy online. An amendment to it requires technology companies to ensure high-privacy settings are switched on by default when a user is under 13, not reveal GPS locations, prevent data from being widely shared and give children time off from notifications during school and sleep hours. The act allows the Information Commissioner’s Office more power to bring criminal proceedings.
THE PROS AND CONS OF MULTITASKING
Different activities use different areas of the brain. Whether you’re reading, exchanging messages with several friends at once, watching YouTube videos or sharing photos, you are being mentally alert. You could also be improving your reaction speeds.
When you’re working on a screen, adverts, alerts and weblinks are distracting. Resisting these temptations takes a lot of brain bandwidth. If that happens occasionally it might not matter, but if you do it a lot it adds up. Our brains have a fixed speed and capacity. When we use a moderate amount on one task, other tasks are slowed down.
It’s easy to think that everyone looks more attractive, popular or exciting than you; people have less willpower when they’re feeling down
- Minimising distractions will help you function better. Switch off software that you are not using.
- Keep devices out of sight when not in use.
- Investigate apps that help you switch off or block social media when you’re working.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one piece of work until it rings.
- Notice and remember how good you feel when you’ve managed to switch off distractions.
BE SOCIAL-MEDIA SAVVY
Being able to connect with people online can have a major effect on our happiness and mood. When we’re going through a bad phase we can easily get help, not just from our friends, but from organisations without having to wait for an appointment or travelling. It’s also easy to find things to make us laugh, to take our mind off what is bothering us or to help us relax after a hard day.
We see or hear repeated news stories that can make us fearful when we don’t actually need to be. If we feel worried too often and don’t process the news in the context of reality, we risk becoming anxious. Research suggests that using your smartphone too much may increase unhappiness. If you’re feeling fine it shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re down or overly anxious, being online is more likely to have a negative effect. Everyone seems to have a perfect life on social media, posting pictures of their amazing party/holiday/boyfriend/girlfriend. It’s easy to think that everyone looks more attractive, popular or exciting than you; people have less willpower when they’re feeling down.
- Keep reminding yourself of the truth: people are putting their best bits out there.
- Try to spend time offline, or online with friends who don’t make you feel anxious.
- If you know you’re vulnerable to anxiety, don’t torment yourself by reading downbeat news stories, and disable news alerts on your phone.
- Balance sad news with happy news or something that makes you laugh.
- Make sure there are enough moments in the day when you are not at the mercy of your phone. Time offline will help you relax and strengthen you for when you do go back online.
This is an edited extract from The Teenage Guide to Life Online by Nicola Morgan, to be published by Walker Books on 7 June, price £7.99. To order a copy for £5.99 until 10 June, click here or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15.