The National:

To get the In Common newsletter from the pro-independence think tank Common Weal direct to your inbox every week, click here. This week's edition comes from Nicola Biggerstaff, policy officer at Common Weal.

IT is approaching the season of good cheer, but current mental health statistics aren't all that cheery. If nothing else, the news you're reading on your phone could leave you miserable – and that's before we consider everything else on there, from cyber bullying to the constant promotion of wealth and beauty on social media.

Perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves if we should also be treating social media as a health problem. After all, the Scottish Government was praised internationally for their strategy to tackle knife crime as a health issue rooted in poverty following an epidemic of violence in the early noughties. What measures can we all take to protect ourselves from harm?

I’m of the generation that grew up as the internet became intertwined with our everyday lives, when rapidly-developing technology and our increasing reliance on it became our rites of passage. I started with the infamous "brick" Nokia phone, then a sliding phone, and graduating to my first smart phone at 15, complete with full social media presence.

The National: Credit:UnsplashCredit:Unsplash (Image: Unsplash)

The basic rules for internet safety used to be simple: Don’t use your real name, don’t give out your details, don’t talk to strangers. This was usurped when Zuckerberg et al came along, insisting that only by using our full names and having our pictures available for the whole world to see, can we possibly communicate authentically. As we now know this was a ploy to sell our data, one we learned of far too late to do anything about. Now these early rules no longer apply.

The idea of "authentic" online profiles being constantly and instantly available has created an undue burden of stress. There are people out there now who don’t live their life for the sake of living it, but to seek approval. Every activity and meal, every waking moment broadcast for all to see, seemingly creating and setting standards by which they think life should be lived.

This pressure to keep up with trends isn’t new, but we used to be free to be ourselves in the safety and comfort of our homes when we closed our door at night. Now this exposure is in the palm of our hands, and even our private spaces aren’t safe from influence.

"Fear of Missing Out" has the collective psyche in a chokehold. The idea that if you don’t have the latest gadgets in your home, don’t eat at that pop-up restaurant, you’re "missing out" in life. But what could possibly be more human than missing out on trends?

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What young people in particular are really missing out on is the chance to discover themselves, their own personalities and quirks, outside of their perfectly curated, algorithmic bubble. One which amplifies old problems or creates new ones, then tries to sell them the solution, feeding into the marketing machine.

It feels like social media is full of that these days, but of course there are also vast informational resources now at our fingertips – once you plough through the disinformation that has been allowed to blossom with little to no consequence. 

Identifying reliable sources online has become increasingly difficult. Equal and affordable access gives the illusion of equal footing, with dangerous conspiracy theories and the people that platform them becoming mainstream, their often dangerous views being passed off as fact. 

There are genuine actors out there too, such as trustworthy news outlets, who are also falling victim. To claw back our attention, they have to find inventive ways to cut through the noise, using attention-grabbing, dramatic content to gain views and maintain the favour of the omnipresent algorithm. This means constant, breaking reporting covering distressing events finds its way onto our pages more easily, from violent incidents to natural disasters. Our brains were not built to deal with such a constant onslaught, and increasing stress levels are a natural reaction.

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With constant exposure to distressing content, disinformation, as well as false and scam advertising, the internet has become insidious. But much like most insidious, addictive habits becoming problems in our communities (smoking, alcohol, drugs, violence) they cannot be tackled until the issues which drive individuals to engage with them in the first place are addressed.

Why do people feel the need to engage with social media? Are they suffering from loneliness in real life? Do they have mental or physical health problems which exclude them from engaging with their local community? Is it unchecked peer pressure? Did they dabble but are now functionally addicted?

With the festive season fast approaching, perhaps it’s time to take a break from the incessant messages that swing between "everything’s doomed" and "you need this". What we need is to head out and embrace the real world. We don’t need to put our lives on a screen to live them.