In a previous column, I outlined my fear that technology and social media, which are unarguably having a momentous impact on the way children think and behave, will become another problem schools are expected to "fix". Since then, I’ve been contemplating what it is that social media providers could, actively, do. Their representatives are apparently happy to give quotes to concerned journalists about their dedication to protecting their youngest and most vulnerable users. But would they be prepared, I wonder, to do any of the following (which might ultimately curtail the amount of time users spend on their sites and negatively affect advertising revenue)?
1. Stop sending emails beseeching users to ‘see what they have missed’
These are sent after as little as 24 hours of not checking into a social media platform. They can range from "such-and-such has uploaded since you last visited" to "you have a message from [insert name of friend]" which, horrifically, sometimes you don’t. We know taking breaks from the world of social media is part of healthy, balanced use and essential for maintenance of mental wellbeing, so why are providers making that hard for us and fuelling the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out)?
2. Stop digging up retro posts
You know, the ones that say "this time last year you were….". In the digital era, we’re not just competing against celebrities, or even our friends, but an idealised version of ourselves. It doesn’t help, then, to be reminded how much fun we were having, or how great we looked a year hence.
3. Don’t tell us what people we have blocked are doing
Official advice from social media providers is to block anyone who persistently and/or deliberately conspires to make us feel uncomfortable online. That’s sage advice. Why, then, are posts from people I have blocked placed in my timeline and inbox, thus potentially stirring up distressing emotions?
4. Stop asking us to 'turn notifications on'
As I advise the young people I work with to do, I have switched off notifications that pop up, in the same way a text would, to inform me when someone has liked one of my posts or @’d me in a tweet. I don’t want my brain to be subjected to the constant surges in dopamine that I know a direct notification causes and would increase my risk of social media addiction. So why do the providers keep begging me to switch them on every time I log in? It’s almost as if they don’t have my best interests at heart...
5. Allow us to set up strict and advanced ‘block’ times
As detailed in Professor Steve Peters’ excellent book The Chimp Paradox, it’s a psychological fact that we make excellent decisions on behalf of our future self but often don’t have the willpower to follow them through. That’s why my best idea for instilling healthy habits around tech use is for social media platforms to give the option for us to block ourselves out of their sites in advance – to install a pre-arranged bedtime and not be able to access for an hour before, for example, or to lock ourselves out for one day per week.
I toyed with other suggestions, like everyone needing to be verified in order to have a social media account, but dismissed them as untenable. The above, I believe, are realistically do-able without curtailing freedom of speech. What they do restrict, however, is the free market. It’s well known that tech providers use the same techniques as those used to hook people into various forms of gambling, with lucrative outcomes for the brands that use their sites to peddle their products. Capitalism only ever has its wings clipped when the cost to society is deemed greater than the cost to the economy.
So, I guess we’ll see whether all this government-led rhetoric around the rapidly declining mental health of young people and the role technology has to play is PR fluff or a genuine call to arms. If the latter, they’ll be prepared to stand up to corporations with hefty financial motivations.
PSHE digital literacy lessons can and potentially will be a valuable resource for teachers and pupils alike, but in the current context, they feel like a drop in the ocean. Schools and parents need to be met halfway. I’d like to continue this conversation (IRONY KLAXON) on social media. Tweet me your suggestions for tools that tech providers could give young people and those who care for them to help to establish healthy boundaries.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here and preorder Natasha's book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: an A-Z here.