Mental Wealth - authenticity and influence: digital detox vs the social-media malaise

In September, will you be a Sleeping Dog, Night Owl, Social Butterfly or Busy Bee? Or will you take the plunge and go Cold Turkey?

Eileen Wise: 'I talk to young people who have a difficult relationship with attractive influencers'
Eileen Wise: 'I talk to young people who have a difficult relationship with attractive influencers'

It’s the latest scheme by digital entrepreneur Tanya Goodin and her website Time To Log Off – backed by the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Media & Young People’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – to get us, just for a month, to put down our smartphones in bed, after 6pm, at social events, at school or work. Or, most drastically, to consign them to the back of the drawer.

No one can deny the benefits of this extraordinary age of communication; our Georgian and Victorian forebears had their Industrial Revolution, but our Technological Revolution shows no sign of slowing.

Yet, while the downside of the Industrial Revolution was overworked, tired bodies packed into foetid factories, today’s workers have increasingly frazzled minds as the internet, and in particular social media, tightens its grip on our lives.

It was a report last year from the Royal Society for Public Health (a study of 14- to 24-year-olds) that prompted MPs to set up a committee to inquire into the impact of social media on young people’s health. 

The RSPH acknowledged that social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter can be platforms for self-expression and community-building. 

But the flipside was that they caused anxiety and depression, deprived users of sleep, exposed them to bullying and created worries about their body image and FOMO (‘fear of missing out’).

So, in this increasingly troubled environment, where does the ‘influencer’ fit? 

There’s nothing new in this so-called phenomenon; in the 1940s corporations quickly cottoned on to the fact that movie stars were great vehicles for endorsing, promoting and selling products. So the celebrity influencers of the day were the likes of Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, who worked wonders for the share price of Max Factor and other cosmetic companies.

But back then the Technological Revolution had still to take hold. The media was quiescent and little was known about the – often stormy – private lives of the stars. Today the unexpurgated opinions of actors, singers, fitness gurus, sports stars and fashionistas are shared freely on their social platforms, while their personal habits, foibles and darker secrets are laid bare by everyone else in the internet jungle.

Authenticity is today’s buzzword. What all companies want is to be associated with passionate, charismatic individuals who are prepared to share their expertise and feelings about their subject and lives. 

But before companies hitch their wagon to elite influencers, they need to check and check again whether the individuals in question share their vision, whether their ‘edginess’ might alienate longstanding customers, and whether there is any whiff of a scandal about them. Some of them also, sadly, are merely in it for the money.

Now that I’m out of the PR world and instead practising as a counsellor, I regularly talk to young people who have difficult relationships with social media and, especially, with attractive influencers. The ‘perfect life’ of their heroes is placed in front of them constantly, and when they unrealistically aspire to be like them, that’s when anxiety and depression set in.

The digital detox won’t solve long-term problems, but it might be a step on the road to tackling the social-media malaise.

Eileen Wise is former global head of PR for The Economist and founder of Wise Counselling www.wisecounselling.co.uk

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