Many of us have experienced sitting close to families and couples in restaurants all glued to screens, we may even be guilty of it ourselves. If our attention is routinely divided, could we inadvertently be making ourselves more lonely?
This year, Mental Health Awareness Week is shining a light on the associated risks of loneliness and the Mental Health Foundation reports that one in four adults feel lonely some, or all of the time. So what about young people? The TalkTalk 2019 ‘Teenage Loneliness Technology’ Report revealed that 28% of parents reported regular feelings of loneliness compared with 21% of young people. The negative impact of technology on mental health appears to be a greater concern for adults rather than children. The report found that 70% of parents were worried about how much time their child spends online and how regularly they use technology. Yet many did not have anything in place to monitor or limit their child’s use. Over a third said they felt ill-equipped or unsure on how to help manage or navigate their child’s technology and internet use safely. This suggests that adults are spending a good deal of time worrying about a problem - that appears to be mainly of their own making - without any strategy to manage and deal with these feelings.
Perhaps adults feel that technology is the cause of a disconnect with their children. As native technology users, children interact with ease online but usually in a space that adults don’t inhabit and therefore fear. The UK definition of screenager is: "A person in their teens or early twenties who has an aptitude for computers and spends a lot of time on the internet". The teenage years have always been a time for children to explore their sense of self and forge independence from their parents but this freedom can be fairly endless online, which is what can go unchecked. The screenager is already outdated though - as highlighted in Ofcom's report - where a third of parents of 5-7 year olds, and two-thirds of parents of 8-11 year olds, said their kids have social media profiles. If adults are feeling lonely as a result of losing their children to screens and the veil of secrecy that exists behind them, the problem will only persist if a solution can’t be found.
It can’t be all bad, technology certainly helped people to connect when freedoms were restricted during lockdown. If young people are generally less lonely than their parents, could technology be a positive contributor? The TalkTalk report found that technology helps young people to feel less lonely because they can interact with others and escape at any time. They highlighted the top four causes of loneliness for young people as issues relating to money, trust, friendships and shyness which the report termed as ‘traditional issues’. Technology was notably absent from this list. For adults it may be hard to perceive that a child shut up in their bedroom could still be having a very active social life. Whilst the manner in which young people communicate has changed dramatically from the days of old, the kids certainly seem alright where loneliness is concerned. They don’t have to wait until the next day to speak to their friends and there will always be someone available to interact with. Perhaps the ‘always-on’ network is something that adults tap into less, respecting people’s home lives and work routines and holding back from reaching out when feelings of loneliness hit.
If adults are feeling increasingly shutout by their lack of involvement in their children’s online lives, the good news is that parents can be more proactive. There are really good sources of support out there for parents, not just to become more tech savvy but on how to have healthy discussions with children about their internet use. The Nintendo Switch and Pokemon games are really successful examples of where adults and young people can join forces and play games together. The Metaverse promises a whole new level of virtual interaction which will enable people to meet via their Avatars and feel part of an event or gathering. For adults to feel less lonely, embracing technical advancements could be beneficial - not only for greater connections with peers but also to find a comfortable way to join young people online.
Natterhub’s online safety platform supports adults to engage with children on how they can become safe, kind and savvy digital citizens. This education brings adults and children together to have healthy conversations about the positive and negative aspects of an increasingly digital world.
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