It doesn’t take much to see that there's a correlation between the rapidly increasing virtual nature of so many aspects of our everyday lives and the reported uplift in disassociation, anxiety and difficulties with mental wellbeing that so many of us are facing.
There’s very little we can do to slow or reverse the progress of this amazing technology, screentime will continue be part of our lives, bringing benefits in a myriad of ways; it is already integral to the lives of our children, and we know that not all that it offers is good for us. But there are simple and low cost things that we can build back into our lives in order to provide some screentime antidotes and bring a bit of balance.
We do have to learn to live well with the tools that we have been handed and we have to find realistic ways to strike a balance between the convenience of all that the cloud can can do and our innate need for connection and relationships, not only with other living beings, but with the precious items in our care that strengthen those relationships and build the memory rafts upon which we sail.
It does seem that the more that we rely on an interface or ‘cloud’ to provide our interactions and entertainment, the more that we are losing the part of us that makes us truly human – the part that needs to connect to other people to be enriched, rather than leaning so wholly and so individually on a flat screen of glowing glass. I am aware of the impact in my own life, on my own behaviour, and when you also add the weirdness of the lockdowns it's no wonder that we may struggle with balancing the 'safety' of being alone in our with our perfectly responsive and never-questioning technology, with the compromises and negotiations of being with each other.
We are also on the brink of a whole new era of virtual experiences with virtual headsets where you can strap your phone into a headset and experience 360° visual immersion to places around the world, and beyond. You can now get a classroom of kids to wander along the edge of a volcano in Iceland, a second later you could be in an Indonesian rainforest looking at primate life. You can go anywhere. You can ‘meet’ other people and ‘go’ with them.
We are going to have to be careful with this. How will we still be content in our everyday reality, on our drizzly Sunday afternoons in our ordinary homes when we could be ‘wandering’ the boulevards of Cannes, ‘seeing’ the turquoise waters and fluttering palms?
We are going to have to keep taking the antidote to technology’s entertainment leaps; as wonderful as it is to have all of these virtual experiences on our touch screens, it’s not the truth of where we are and who we are with, and as with all deception there will be a price to pay.
We have concrete evidence of ‘the rise in the numbers of children and young people reporting mental health concerns in England. In 2022, one in six children aged 7 to 16 had a mental health problem, an increase from one in nine in 2017 and one in ten in 2004 (NHS Digital, 2022).’ (Local Gov Association independent review paper June 2023)
A small but tangible thing that we can do to support our families, our young people and ourselves, is to find a few anchors, a few more ‘REAL’ experiences and things to touch, hold and feel that will help us to know that real life is real! and that real life really is better than anything offered on flat glass screen, stuff that will never really belong to them.
Here are a few small, old-fashioned things that don't provide all the answers to such a complex aspect of being a human in our times, but they do add a little bit of real connection and joy to life.
Write a letter to someone you love. We, (well me, the over 50 generation…) we are the last generation of people who had to write on paper to each other. We didn’t have the internet, emails and Skype in our early years. This is why I still have a box of 136 letters from 1995 when I met my ex-husband and he was away gymnastics-training in Germany. I still have them. I can still see his handwriting, touch the paper he had in that studio flat in Heidenheim. Maybe I'll share them with the teenagers one day when they might want to believe that their parents did start out by seeing all that was wonderful in each other. There’s an undeniable magic about finding a real letter on your door mat that isn't from HMRC or the water company. It is a portal to someone else and it tells you that they have thought of nothing but you for the minutes it took to sit and write it. And post it. How flattering. How human.
Buy a photograph album. Go through your phone’s camera roll. Choose your favourites and get them printed. Make them real things that you can touch, turn the pages over. If you have kids, take them to a grandparent or older relative and look through some photos together. Sit next to someone on the sofa and share the photos. You will find that you chat, interact, laugh. You will have a totally different experience to the solo social media sharing experience.
Plus you’ll know what to say if you ever have to answer that question about the first thing you’d rescue in a fire.
Feel your music. Touch it. Show the kids a record player, a CD player. I have a cassette player in my 1999 Renault Clio! Go and find a friend who has a collection of music that you can touch, feel, sort through. Remind yourself, and any children, that once, when you owned an album, you literally owned it. You had it. You listened to all of it. Buy an old record player if you can, the kids will adore it. Buy weird vinyl from the charity shops. Get to the library for CDs. When your music is all in a cloud there is nothing you can touch, there are no covers to stroke, it’s not sensual in the way it used to be. Let the kids start collecting CDs. It’s cheap, charity shops have stacks.
Have a Pet if you can do it well. A real life to look after. Nothing virtual. So many invaluable lessons for life here.
Have a few Games nights. I have to admit that I grew up with no culture of board games. I had enough brothers and sisters for 40/40, Murder In The Dark and 5 a-side so we didn’t really need them and we would definitely have lost all the pieces. But, there’s a recent resurgence in the board game market for a good reason and I’m getting on board. It’s about interaction, following rules, being fair, having fun, sharing, laughing, being a group. It needs no wifi. You can turn it off. Invite a few mates. Get your kids to invite a few. You will not regret it, it’ll be structured by the game and easy. Just get a few snacks in. I totally recommend DIXIT, I hadn’t seen it until a few years ago but it’s brilliant. Creative, beautiful, language-enriching, inter-generational brilliant. It’s big in other countries; I’m amazed it’s not well known here too.
Please let me know what other small ways you have found to get a bit of a balance between the virtual and the real.
It’s a hugely important mental health issue as we whizz into this crazy future.