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  • Writer's pictureSTEVE COOKE AATA


A short article for discussion by Steve Cooke


It has been claimed that our young people are the loneliest in the history of our species!


In the not too distant past a space inhabited mainly by young people would be abuzz with excited chatter but now often silent, with heads bent towards screens, too absorbed in their internet content and connections to actually speak to each other.


When young people feel in need of social contact, they reach for their phones to check social media or text a friend. The question is ‘does this give them the psychological nutritional benefit of a real-life connection’.


Psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Anxious Generation describes this shift as ‘the great rewiring of childhood’.


Once smartphones became common and the internet accessible, he writes, young people spent ever less time socialising in real life and ever more time online.


Girls more likely to be sucked into the self-esteem destroying vortex of social media and boys more likely to become obsessive gamers or addicted to porn.


British young people spend more time online than any other group, according to the UK telecoms and broadcast regulator Ofcom, with those aged 15-24 spending an average of over four and a half hours a day online.


They are also the most vulnerable to its harms, Haidt argues, as adolescence is a period of critical social and emotional development.


Consider what young people stopped doing when they started spending almost 5 hour a day online.


Having held steady for decades almost every single measure of youth mental health – loneliness, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicide and self-harm - began to rise in the 2010s when smartphones became ubiquitous, and have been increasing ever since.


The reality is of course more complex with rising rates of mental health diagnoses partly the result of more young people seeking help for emotional problems.


The epidemic of teen unhappiness and disconnection is also an outcome of the economics of loneliness – the isolating effects of poverty and insecurity, the mass closure of youth and community groups and the steady decline of social spaces such as libraries, playgrounds and swimming pools over years of austerity.


It can be argued that social media can reduce loneliness, as when young people who are isolated or out of place find their tribe online.


Does excessive social media use make young people depressed or do the depressed end up spending too much time online?


Whatever the causes and effects it is undeniable that the social media apps that young people use to stay connected were never designed to help them build and maintain good relationships – they were built to monetise their attention – tech firms will show them pretty much anything to keep them looking.


Their attention is constantly redirected from the people physically closest to them, away from their communities and real lives.


Friendship is becoming something increasingly practised at a distance via text message or social media post.


It has never been so easy for young people to move through the world without talking to anyone. 


Studies show that even incidental interactions like exchanging pleasantries with a barista or fellow commuter is key to reducing loneliness and fostering a sense of belonging.


A hashtag or series of likes or heart emojis isn’t what caring is about – it is touch and presence, the act of being there for someone else.


One way of enabling young people to re-establish social connection in the real world is by engaging in the creative arts.


The mental health benefits for young people through getting together and being creative are well know by us at Vibe Rochdale and across many partner organisations such as Skylight Circus Arts, M6 Theatre Company and Cartwheel Arts.


The individual and community wellbeing benefits of engaging in the creative arts is at heart of all that All Across the Arts does in local print media and across digital platforms.


This is not the time to cut funding for the creative arts!


It should be the age of massive expansion, providing creative arts spaces activities and events for and by our young people.


We owe it to them to encourage and enable them to expand their means of expression, to find their individual and collective voices beyond social media apps, to act, dance, sing, make music, draw, paint, write stories, lyrics, raps and poems, make films and animations and to share their creations with other young people and their wider communities.


To develop a sense of self-worth and belonging, to be heard and to listen, to care and be cared for, to be who they are beyond their smartphones.









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