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Digital Wellbeing and Resilience

Many of us recognise our increased reliance on digital communications and networking. We now seem to be able to connect with just about anyone whenever we want to, wherever we are. However, can we also disconnect whenever we want to, wherever we are? As e-mail becomes “old hat” and social media continues to evolve, what do we need to do to make sure we not only cope with these new means of communication but possibly utilise them in a way which enhances us?

A few years ago I read the book “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr (2010), in which he compellingly argues that internet use is changing our brains and weakening our capacity for deep, contemplative, reflective thought. This seems worrying but perhaps we have always adapted to new communication means at a cost, but ultimately for greater benefit? As the journalist and writer Bill Keller puts it “Every technology, including the printing press, comes at some price.” I won’t try to open up the debate around digital communication and intelligence here. Instead I want to consider some aspects of psychological wellbeing and resilience in relation to the demands we face when communicating on-line. There are three areas I’ll focus on: controlling our thinking; the interpersonal resilience building opportunity provided through social media; and “always on” risks.

Thought Control

You send a friend request on Facebook to someone you used to know well but haven’t seen for a few years. After a month they still haven’t accepted your request. What are your thoughts?

  • They probably haven’t noticed my request

  • They don’t want to open up our relationship again

  • They hate me!

The first thing to accept here is that you really don’t know why they haven’t responded – all these thoughts are speculation! However, you will almost certainly speculate. Attribution theory is useful in trying to ensure our thoughts are constructive rather than destructive. This tries to explain how we attribute causes to events and it has its origins in the work of the social psychologist Bernard Weiner (1985).

Two key aspects of how we attribute causality to what has happened (or not happened!) are whether we think in terms of external or internal reasons, and how stable the causes are likely to be over time. So at first glance the three thought options above all seem to have an external orientation, they all begin with “they.” However, the third one contains a strong internal component, “they hate ME.” This line of thought almost certainly contains the belief that I have done something to make them hate me. The second thought also hints at an internal thought dimension. If they don’t want to open up OUR relationship then perhaps it is because of something I have done in the past in that relationship?

The stability aspect is about how temporary or permanent our attributions are. The first thought is a good example of a temporary attribution – if they haven’t noticed my request they may yet do so. Whereas the second thought suggests a more permanent belief. If they don’t want to open up our relationship again this is probably unlikely to change as we now have no contact with each other. As for the third thought, it depends on whether you believe you have some permanent quality that makes people hate you!

Clearly the most helpful attributions when things don’t go as you would wish them to tend to be external and temporary rather than internal and permanent. However, you may well have many thoughts that have the less helpful qualities – the key is to know you are attributing what has happened in a particular way and to challenge yourself to consider the alternatives. This doesn’t automatically make unhelpful thoughts and beliefs disappear but it should help you take a more rounded view of the event and not stray into unchecked negative thought (or action) spirals.

Interpersonal Resilience On-line

Social media has opened out the opportunity to interact with an almost unlimited range of different people. This places a new emphasis on interpersonal resilience. The broader and larger the network of people we interact with the greater our chances of finding new positive relationships AND the greater our chances of finding new negative ones. Clearly the latter is a concern for many parents with children accessing the web in an open and very difficult to control environment. However, building resilience means learning to deal with difficult people and situations. Given the open nature of the digital space we now inhabit we are unlikely to develop the resilience we need to thrive in it by being overly restrictive about the interactions we are exposed to. Aleks Krotoski, who presents the excellent BBC radio programme The Digital Human, provides an informative balanced view of what the web is doing to us in terms of relationships. For example, she highlights how ultimately our on-line community space in an inevitable extension of our “real world” interactions:

“The good news is that this is a natural phase of our evolution with a new technology. It has, like other inventions before it, been seized upon as a panacea and dismissed as a destroyer. It is neither. It is a sin eater. Ultimately, it is a mirror of us all.” (Krotoski, 2014)

The opportunity here is that we can build our capacity to interact with a wider range of people than has ever been the case in the past. Of course we need to be careful. A heated or embarrassing exchange online can be accessible on an open permanent basis, it’s not like a face-to-face argument involving only two people. People are not always what they seem, and that can be particularly true on-line. So perhaps we need a level of interpersonal caution on-line, until trust is established, which might be greater than we’d naturally exercise face-to-face.

Always On

Let’s be honest, it’s addictive isn’t it? Staying permanently connected means we can feel constantly stimulated and part of something. However, the risk is surely a combination of being very reactive, and unfocused, together with not getting the benefits of respite. If we react every time we get a new e-mail or pop up alert surely we are at risk of not getting done what we need to and being pulled by an almost random set of other people’s issues. It’s a bit like we are sitting in a whole world open plan office and anyone can interrupt anyone at any point. However, we can control this. We can switch off the alerts and constant e-mail and chose when and where to access these streams. But, it’s a hard habit to break. You might need to start by having just one hour of daylight time off-line! The time and space to disconnect and reflect is often regenerative and time well spent. Perhaps go for a stroll without being a podestrian and checking your e-mail or Facebook along the way. The rise of practices such as Mindfulness reflect the realisation that disconnecting can be very important for our wellbeing.

References / Sources

Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. Atlantic Books, London.

Krotoski, A (2014) What the Internet is Doing to Us Part 1 of 3: Our Selves.

Weiner, B. (1985). An Attributional Theory of Achievement Motivation and Emotion. Psychological Review, 92(4), 548-573.

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