Monday, September 30, 2019

Time to reclaim the lifeblood of human society

In the lead up to last week’s School Strike 4 Climate, a tweet jumped out at me. “Why are so many young people depressed?” it asked, and then presented two different answers.

Teenagers: The adults have f***ed up the planet and our future.

Adults: It’s the phones.

Of course, both might be true. Depression might be sparked by the fate of the planet, but then fed by incremental updates and outrage delivered to smartphones in our pockets all the time.

It isn’t what used to happen. Panic about 1980s' concerns such as nuclear war weren’t amplified and fed back to us through a hyperconnected echo chamber.

It most certainly is bad for our health. Studies show that as screen time increases, so too do rates of teenage suicide and depression.

Lead researcher Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University compared US statistics on teenage suicide deaths, suicide-related outcomes and adolescents’ depressive symptoms, with new media use. He found adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, printed media, and attending religious services) were less likely.

Australian teens spend as much, if not more time on screens, than their US counterparts. Screen time is not just increasing conflict between people, it’s shrinking space for nourishing things, particularly in-person social interaction.

A study from some years back showed 90 per cent of respondents believed people were less polite on social media than in person, while 81 per cent said they had a difficult conversation on social media that remained unresolved.

It took us millennia to cultivate low-drama dialogue and complex negotiation; the art of building rich and rewarding relationships, an art that may be being lost.

We may know this deep down but we still compulsively go online because of its deliberate intermittent reward system, affirming us one minute but punishing us the next.

Adults, we’d expect, have a stronger sense of who they are; are therefore less buffeted by the combative, often judgmental text and relentless drama of news online. Young people are far less prepared, hence feeling more emotionally brittle, less optimistic about life, especially as is shown, if they are high-users of new media. Young people are more likely to be addicted to the technology because they have less impulse control than adults.

One strategy is reclaiming the art of face-to-face conversation, that lifeblood of human society. Conversation takes people seriously. It says we matter.

A nine-year-old told his mother, a friend of mine, recently: “People say at school that the world is not going to be here when I grow up?” The mum asked calmly, “Is that something you are worried about?” She engaged her son to understand the world as he sees and feels it. She did not look shocked. She did not panic, a feeling the language of climate emergency may create. Instead, she listened.

Good conversation starts with where kids are at, from which small steps can be made to give them a sense of power and control. As children and young people feel a loss of control, even afraid of their future, adults have a responsibility to avoid patronising them or dismissing their concern, but rather to co-design solutions with them around the table, at home, at school and in the wider community.

The stakes are high. Being so well informed can perversely make young people prone to giving up, without agency, even more vulnerable to the attention merchants that distract and numb. Some can’t get out of bed, suffering what’s now being called ''eco-trauma''. They have worked so hard to get the climate message out, but feel they have failed themselves while others have failed them.

A balance must be reached between pragmatic realism and hope about the world we live in today and tomorrow. There must be space to enjoy nature for itself without mediating screens, spaces to quieten the mind and spaces for gentle and spontaneous conversation that turns down the drama, to recharge, re-enchant and really connect.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, September 23, 2019