By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT
This is one of those unique topics that I know I can use an “absolutism” with absolute certainty: you are all using the Internet right now and it is affecting your mental health.
Is it good? Is it bad?
We have all seen the click bait articles citing the terrors of the Internet, with its unforgiving waves of constant information sucking us down into its undercurrent. 77% use the Internet every day, and according to Pew Research, 26% of us are “online constantly”.
As a millennial, I guess it’s only natural that I defend the state of the world as it is, but I do believe that there is context beyond the general criticisms of our generation and the mental health issues that rose with the dawn of the Internet.
First of all, the Internet grew immensely quickly.
The world became a “global village” within the span of only 10-15 years, the narrowest margin of time for such a large change. This created a whole list of problems that few anticipated, and even fewer knew how to respond. Mental health was probably the last thing on many people’s minds, and yet it has come to influence us on a daily basis far more than we ever anticipated.
Around the same time, mental health information became more available and more widely popular.
In the 1990’s mental health stories and books began their rise in popularity; today it is arguably a trendy topic. But those of us growing up in the wake of the Internet were still subject to a lack of widespread mental health services and deep stigma about getting help.
The Internet isn’t going anywhere.
This is a fundamental truth that (barring some catastrophic world event) we will all have to learn to live with: we are all going to have to acclimate our mental health with the unrelenting flow of information that is available to us every day.
So, how can we address our mental health needs while continuing to live among the sea of smartphones and devices?
Just as you are (or hope to be) a citizen of the country where you live, we are all citizens of the Internet. And as such, we are responsible for our part in making it a place where we want to live, breathe, and interact. If we are intentional about our usage, we are creating a space for our mental health as well as everyone else we meet online.
Mike Ribble created the concept of digital citizenship for the education of children in schools, but since we all missed out on that education, I believe it’s useful for everyone. If you’re looking for the TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) version, here is my summary:
Recognize your relationship with the Internet.
Like everything else in life, we attach some meaning to the Internet, even an identity.
Do you rely on it for facts and data?
Or do you seek values and opinions as well?
Who do you follow, and what is their perspective?
Do you note the sources or use critical thinking when reading or watching?
Recognize your role on the Internet.
When you join a group project, you may take on a certain “role”. When you are in your family, you may have another role. When you’re behind your computer or on your phone, you may take on yet another persona.
Where do you spend your time?
How do you make your presence known?
Likes, comments, or do you produce even more content?
What is your intention when you state your opinions or share facts?
And how do you communicate? Lecturing? Or discussing?
Recognize your balance.
Everyone knows instinctively that staring at our screens all day is, at the very least, something new to the human race and therefore, not exactly built for our biology. Productivity research has shown that even the presence of our smartphone, not even actively using it, reduces our brain power. And yes, I am that person that needs my phone to be on my person at all times. So many of us need it for work or school, it’s no wonder we get addicted to looking at it even when we have no intention of doing so. But sometimes, I’ll intentionally leave my phone to charge or put it out of sight while I am out. Even small steps can reduce your dependence and help you regain your intentional use of what is simply an unbounded network of connections to others.
The Internet is depending on its citizens to determine whether it is a place that is hurtful or helpful.