(You will have to forgive me – I cannot source any of this theory but I hope to soon. Aha – I have sourced it – it’s the brilliant work of Dr. Paul Gilbert.)
I recently attended a conference with an excellent speaker who was talking about children’s and young people’s mental health. He pretty much confirmed (referring to research) what many of us have intuited about why children’s mental health is getting worse. His positive messages about promoting resilience included much of what I have written in my book ‘What’s going on inside my head?’ such as the importance of face to face interactions, outdoor time, developing emotional literacy and not panicking when we feel unenjoyable emotions etc
The ‘loudest’ message I received however was about mental health and technology. We have long suspected that the amount of time young people spend on screens at the expense of other activities older generations did much more of when young, has taken its toll and here is a model that explains why.
For a start, we all know that social media goes to great lengths to hook us in and keep us clicking. Every click we make creates data and data can be sold for big bucks. It is no surprise therefore that social media uses teams of psychologists to work out – say for example – whether we are more or less likely to click on something if the button is placed on the left or on the right. So, no wonder many of us are so effectively addicted. Much research has been done into the little rewards social media gives us in the form of dopamine hits. This is because social media is designed to stimulate our brain’s reward system to keep us hooked. It certainly works for many.
Social media also brings us global news at the click of a button and that news is nearly always completely disturbing. It would appear that in order to get our somewhat numbed-by-over-stimulation attention, things need to be pretty extreme. Our minds are also wired so we engage more readily with ‘shocking’ than ‘mundane’. We notice negative more than positive (this is a survival mechanism we have evolved for safety – let the venomous snake grab our attention more than the pretty flower). This leaves young people with an awful lot to worry about. Of course, it’s not just young people who are despairing about global issues, we all are but maybe it’s easier to have some protecting perspective when you’re a tad longer in the tooth! The extreme nature of global news and the fact it is at our fingertips can stimulate the threat/flight or fight part of our brain and we can feel stressed.
So with both the brain’s flight or fight and reward systems so regularly being stimulated, it leaves less time for the safe, calm and relaxed mind state; the state we are in when we go for a walk, when we are lost in creative flow, when we read a book or simply flop on the sofa eating a crumpet without thinking about anything else. With brains working at full pelt in this heightened way, it will make us fragile and certainly more prone to anxiety.
So what’s the answer? Yes to less screen time where possible. Yes to more ‘doing one thing at a time’ calming activities and yes to discussions about how the media needs to shock us to get our attention so our children can develop a more discerning eye. But also, share this model with your child. Explain the importance of activities that are calming and not about being driven or stressed constantly. This will hopefully go some way to redressing this imbalance.
(I will also add as an afterthought that both the reward driven and flight or fight states of mind/emotion result in a narrowed focus whereas the calming soothing frame of mind is when we have capacity to open our minds up to new information. This might play a part in the lack of healthy debate on social media – one where people actually listen and learn from each other!)