It is well documented that the technological evolution is changing many things about how we live. Technology now impacts upon our work lives, our family lives and our intimate and close relationships and perhaps we are living through the greatest social experiment of all time. However, it may also be the greatest emotional experiment of our time.
I have worked in Child and Adolescent Mental Health for over twenty years and I can confidently say that in the last five years I have seen an increase in the presentation of young people with anxiety. This steady incline of presentation has been difficult to apportion to any one variable, but perhaps the impact of the technological evolution has had some role in its occurrence. It is my view that three consistent themes exist in the narratives of young people that I see, and these themes include expectation, desire and vulnerability.
It is my view that social media and internet technologies can be viewed as agents of interpersonal desire. Internet technologies mean that we are now producers as well as consumers of media, often simultaneously, and this means that users can shape, customize and direct online interactions. These interpersonally rich modalities offer graphic apps and transformative multimedia cues that create a feeling of presence for the user. The rich sense of presence is often suggested as a means of tackling loneliness and isolation but also the 24/7 availability of social media sites for viewing, content-creating, and editing allows for exponentially more opportunities for negative social comparison and rumination. This powerful medium can transport individuals to psychologically involved domains and manipulate beliefs and attitudes.
The narrative about internet usage and screen time is misdirected. Of course, there are real fears and anxieties around cyber-safety in terms of cyber-bullying, inappropriate exposure to violent and pornographic material. However, perhaps there are more latent and insipid consequences to our collective mental health that are less obvious. It is important that we do not become distracted by the thin end of the wedge in terms of these aspects of online activity and miss out on the more pervasive elements. The distraction from our relationship with ourselves and the obsession with external validators may well be contaminating our desire and creating a larger reality/ expectation gap which is leaving us feeling disgruntled and creating a society of discontent. Perhaps the answer does not lie in the regulation of in internet content, but rather it involves the regulation of human desire.
The social media platforms are conduits for human connection which can influence our choice architecture, our lens of expectation and manipulate our desire. It is therefore imperative that we learn to become critical consumers of the technology and pay more attention to enhancing our ability to question its authenticity and in turn regulate our own desire. Regulation of our human desire is difficult at the best of times, but it is more challenging when there are influences at play that see desire as a currency for marketing and develop personalised and rich mediums to steer and drive our desire. We need to re-invest in a conversation about what is meaningful and learn to re-establish our own autonomy over our own value systems. We need to re-align our own sense of agency and develop a media and emotional literacy which enhances our ability to hold onto our own value systems and not have those dictated to by companies who want to sell us things and keep us distracted