Niamh, a member of McPin Foundation’s YPAG
As part of the McPin Foundation’s Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG), I have been working on the Screen Time project to ensure that the project is applicable, effective and appropriate for young people. This involved the creation of a survey to collect the main questions that parents, teachers and young people have about how screen time affects mental health. These questions can then be used to shape research to provide the answers.
Before taking part in the project, I believed that screen time was solely the amount of time I spent on social media. I viewed this negatively as the main thing that came to mind was the too frequent notifications that I received. The worst was the notification that calculated how long I used my phone on a typical day - a horrendous five hours a day, which left me feeling sick and thinking about how I was literally scrolling my life away.
However, this project opened my eyes to what I’ve come to think of as the ‘spider web’ of screen time because it is so complex. Being on a device has many implications; some that are dangerous, and others that are advantageous. Importantly, ‘screen time’ does not only refer to social media. It is online gaming, gambling, support networks, education, therapy, work. It is many parts of contemporary life. For most families, there is not one day when they do not use a screen for some purpose, whether this be for work, education or leisure. We have entered a time in society where technology has a firm hold over us and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
For me, screen time is, and I imagine always will be, a double-edged sword. Partaking in this project highlighted this further. I find that what decides which edge it will fall upon is the question of balance: How do I get involved in gaming without becoming addicted? How do I connect to my friends and the wider community but without becoming obsessed with looking a certain way just because I look different to the person I am looking at? How do I educate myself on topics I may not know about, but not get lost in misinformation? How do I support other people but not at the expense of my own mental health? And most importantly, how do I use screens in a way that doesn’t consume my life?
Too much of anything becomes unhealthy. Gaming could become all-consuming and connecting with others could result in unhealthy comparisons. For some people, a balance isn’t enough, any amount of screen time can be damaging and they have to keep away. For others, screen time does not affect them at all, they are the same with or without it. For myself, I have found moderation to be key.
The Screen Time project is important because it will help us learn which elements of screen time are potentially damaging, which are positive, or a mixture of the two. It is only when we can better approach the question of impact that we can begin to protect ourselves from potential harms and improve our relationship to technology.
Socially distanced…socially connected
In 2019, this sounded simpler. Unknown to us, while this project was being planned, a worldwide pandemic would occur and completely change life. Covid-19 would come into our lives and alter it in ways that we could never have imagined. As lockdown commenced, people were sent to work from home and all physical social interactions with people outside of your home ceased. For myself and many people around me, the abrupt halt to our social lives was what affected us most. This had an impact on our mental health. I was used to seeing countless people on a daily basis. I was finishing my final year of teacher training, a degree which is centred around communication with others. At first, I could not comprehend the idea that I would be unable to see or speak with my friends or wider family. However, screens meant that I could continue to work from home and complete my education. Apps like Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams meant that we could still see each other’s faces, not in person but at least it was something. Screens meant that children could learn from their teachers at home and they provided an outlet which helped reduce loneliness.
Although life in the pandemic was and, in some ways, continues to be very difficult, screens meant that I could stay connected to my friends and family, work from home, and most importantly, prevented me from slipping into the depths of anxiety and depression.
Living through this pandemic has raised questions about all aspects of life. The use of screens has been an important part of this reckoning as even more of our day to day activities are facilitated by this technology. Now, at this crucial juncture, it is more important than ever to consider the nuanced ways that screen time is affecting our mental health, to discuss and find answers to the questions we have about screens, and then use this knowledge to shape research on mental health and improve ways of relating to each other through screens.
Completing this survey is a first step in this process. We will be able to see what online safeguards are necessary and when using a screen may enhance our mental health. I ask you, please complete the survey, not only for your benefit but for the health of our society. Young people today are the biggest consumers of screens, and they are also our future. It is so important that young people play a role in shaping the direction of this research.
For young people, parents and teachers, to complete the survey, follow the link.
More information on the YPAG and McPin Foundation’s work with young people, click here.