Our head-in-the-sand attitude to the internet cannot last

We cannot continue to think of the internet as a separate domain of our social lives. What happens online is part of the real world now, says Derek Chambers.

Our head-in-the-sand attitude to the internet cannot last

Following recent media reports of a suicide in the US which was broadcast live on social media, there was understandable shock and dismay across the media here.

When I was asked to contribute to the discussion on my local radio station, my call was put ‘on hold’ while I listened to other ‘experts’ condemn the evils of the internet and the graphic information our young people are being exposed to.

It is true there is plenty of harmful online content available, especially if you go looking for it, and that many people behave badly online with little regard for others who fall victim to bullying or ridicule or worse.

But it is in everyone’s interest to recognise the positive use of technology and to learn to be good digital citizens. Online technology has developed to the point where our children take it for granted as part of everyday life and the current generation of adults is the last generation to have known a world without the internet.

In most other areas of our social lives, we adults hold a certain amount of authority on the basis of knowledge and experience.

When it comes to technology, the use of mobile apps and online resources is second nature to young people whereas Snapchat, Twitter, or even WhatsApp tend to generate confusion or disinterest among many adults.

We cannot continue, as we once did, to think of ‘the internet’ or ‘online’ as a separate, objectified domain of social life that we can ignore or ration out or condemn as dangerous.

Messaging apps and online platforms are the preferred method of communication for young people (and many older people) for anything and everything including personal issues that might initially be difficult to discuss with someone else.

If we are concerned about bad breath or a dodgy lump or the reason why our face goes bright red in awkward social situations, rightly or wrongly, we go online and search for reliable information.

In relation to our mental health, and based on two large-scale surveys of thousands of young people in Ireland (My World Survey 2012, Reaching Out in College 2015), the internet is the preferred source of information and support.

The Government and the Health Service Executive recognise that this is important but there is no clear plan to address the area. Recent suicide prevention policy documents read like invitations to do something planned in this space and organisations already providing dedicated online mental health resources are more than ready and willing to provide scalable, cost-effective services of the highest standards.

All that is missing is a national e-mental health strategy to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring reliable mental health information is available to the Irish public, young and old.

A national e-mental health strategy would ensure quality standards around the provision of mental health information online, offer a framework for the delivery of online therapy and give clear guidance on managing online profiles on social media when someone dies. These are very real, everyday issues for so many of the population but for now there is a sense that we are making things up as we go along.

There is a widely held belief that we will never be able to keep up with advances in technology, but instead of letting this notion hold us back, we need to take advantage of the opportunity that technology affords us to provide scalable, low-cost quality assured mental health resources.

Everything that happens online is amplified and reach literally millions of people — it’s time to get the balance right, amplify the good stuff, and promote positive resources.

In the research that ReachOut has carried out with young people, a consistent finding is that the internet is the easiest, most natural source of mental health support and advice but we also find that people don’t know which online resources they can trust.

It wouldn’t cost the Government much to endorse pioneering online services by recognising that we provide quality advice and information to support thousands of Irish people every week.

In turn, people will know there are trusted, safe resources online where they can get the information that can give them the confidence to talk to someone, bringing private worries towards interpersonal solutions.

  • Derek Chambers is acting CEO of ReachOut Ireland

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