Monday 21 January 2019,
by Andy Stafford

Two years ago I stopped using Facebook, reduced my usage of Twitter and focused more on LinkedIn. The truth is that using social media didn’t make me feel good. At all. My views polarised, the pressure to contribute made me anxious, and scrolling felt like the complete opposite of time well spent. But, I continued to advocate social media and, more importantly, the good that it can do for clients and their users. I even advocate it when talking at events. Digital and social media is a force for good and bad, I believe.

We need to talk about mental health and digital, which is increasingly linked to mental health challenges, and more men under 49 die in the U.K. from suicide than any other cause. Much of this could be prevented if mental health was less stigmatised, and as a society, we were more open to talking about stress, anxiety, depression, and not see it as a weakness on the part of the individual. Mental health (rather than mental illness), is something we need to see more like diabetes, heart disease, and any other ‘physical’ disease. It can happen as a consequence of modern existence. It’s not the person’s ‘fault’, and for the most part, we don’t judge the individual as a result of the physical illness that they have acquired. Equally the individual with mental health challenges should not be judged.

Is Digital Affecting our mental health?

There is no doubt in my mind that anyone looking for health innovations- and by innovations, I don’t mean new stuff, I mean genuine improvements on what went before– will almost inevitably involve technology. Technology has an awesome ability to help, save, connect, and improve lives in ever more amazing ways. I think this is beyond doubt, but we should not seek to use it to replace face to face, the real, the tangible, the physical. Rather, it should be complementary, used sparingly and always for the real benefit of the individual, or individuals, not the brand or provider.

Digital, online, and especially social media, poses health risks all of its own that we need to be cognisant of. From the direct effects to the indirect and more pernicious, digital changes the way that we have interacted with people and the world, so it’s useful to list some of the ways that this is the case as we consider how to achieve better mental health. Here are some that I think are relevant to this discussion;

  • PCs, tablets, and mobiles, with the latter occupying our attention to alarming levels, and taking us out of the moment and away from the physical interaction. Have you seen Eric Pickersgill’s photo series where he edits out the object of our devotion to create some fairly haunting ‘no-phone’ images
  • The stickiness of the online experience. The online experience, and certainly where platforms and publishers are concerned, are engineered to keep you interacting as long as possible. It’s effective because it is how you are monetised. You are the product, as the saying goes…
  • The need to impress. Human nature can be rather vain and needy. Online, these aspects of our drivers can be fully realised as we seek validation, even from complete strangers.  Less ambitiously, perhaps, we just want to fit in to be part of our tribe.
  • We fear missing out, and don’t need to as we carry our screens wherever we go. It’s even got an acronym, FOMO, that recognises we need to be there, online to make sure we don’t miss out on the ‘fun’. It helps to drive our addiction.
  • The internet never sleeps, and consequently, we sleep less. The phone remains near our bed lulling us back in with its artificial light that tricks our circadian rhythms.
  • Work eats into personal time probably for all the factors listed above.
  • We are becoming less tolerant, not more. Our views are polarising as we shout, semi-anonymous, into our little echo chambers.
  • To make matters worse we have seen how our data can be manipulated and exploited by unscrupulous parties to affect outcomes in the real world. The real impact of your data being known is perhaps the most alarming and undetermined issue. Nobody really knows what the impact of this will be.
  • Loneliness. More time online and less offline with friends and family increases loneliness, and we’ve never felt more alone apparently. We’ve never been more disconnected from societies and the people around us.
  • Bullying and intimidation. Unlike most of the factors above which we invite into our lives, nobody invites this.

I think we know when we have spent unfulfilling time online, and we recognise unconsciously (if not consciously) that our brains have been hacked/hijacked to give us what we want, and not what we need. I thought that this was perhaps a challenge and realisation that affected people of working age more, but almost two-thirds of schoolchildren in the U.K., according to a survey last year, ‘would not mind if social media had never been invented’.

A digital agency manifesto?

As we reshape the agency to reflect our collective abilities to more effectively ‘bridge the gap to healthier lives’ through principally digital means, I am fully aware of what a double-edged sword digital, and social media in particular, can be as we spend more time online, looking at screens, unable, or unwilling, to switch off.  

So, what can we, as an employer and supplier of digital solutions, do to foster and create better mental health? As people and as an organisation we certainly need to do better, but what guidelines should we create to focus our commitment?

Here is our pledge for helping to foster better mental health in work with digital:

  1. Engage people at work to enhance their connection to each other, our customers and end users. To endeavour to provide work that fulfills nitro’s purpose and people’s desire to work on something that is bigger than themselves. In seeking to accomplish this, we will use digital less within the office and face-to-face more.
  2. Recognise that we need to do more to look after our employees psychological and emotional welfare. We need to be able to understand the issues and be able to empathise. Digital enables work to encroach into our private lives, so we need to talk openly about work-life balance, pressure, and stress and to help ensure that it doesn’t get too much. For instance;
    • We have had our health insurer come into talk about mental health to, among other aspects, explain the symptoms to recognise in other people.
    • We have also started running fireside chats about all aspects of our health (and mental health) to open up to each other. If we can’t talk about it openly here what hope have we got of helping clients, or patients?  
    • Trust in flexible working, and in people’s need to run manage their time to manage their busy lives. Give them time to seek mental (and of course, physical) help, and be fully supportive of their needs as a person, not just an employee.
  3. Help our clients to do the right thing and never seek to recommend or implement digital solutions for our clients that ONLY seek to be successful for themselves. Rather, success should always be measured in the health outcomes that they are intended to help accomplish.
  4. Seek to promote, where possible, mental wellbeing as a component of the work that we do for clients. It’s rare that disease or illness does not impact on the mental health of an individual and is still an area in which the patient is massively underserved. We need to see the patient holistically, not just as a patient with a condition. NICE, in the U.K. for instance, now expects to see more holistic consideration -not just product data- from their suppliers.
  5. We should build the technology around the end users, the healthcare professionals, the patients, and the wider world, and tailor it for their convenience. We should not look for them to alter their behaviour – which rarely works, anyway. We should always propose ways in which the technology can help people to be more connected and human, to be more social, to be supported and not encourage them to retreat online.

We are all effectively guinea pigs in a massive global experiment with many unknown or undiscovered consequences, so individually I think we all need to take greater responsibility for our own mental health. We can achieve this by being more in tune with what we need and not what we want. By consuming less digital content, by setting boundaries, tuning out at regular intervals, and accepting that we do not need validation from people we don’t know and turning FOMO into JOMO (the Joy of missing out), and work on the messiness of real life and the recognition that it brings. Breathe deeply, or meditate, if you have the inclination or ability.

We should use digital to collapse boundaries of time, space and geography for our benefit, bring people together physically and make us better together, to actively improve health at an individual, societal and global level.

Digital technology and the internet is, after all, an incredible invention which can be used for good and for bad. As the saying, sometimes attributed to Churchill, goes, “We make the tools, and the tools make us”, but we should not sleepwalk in our digital consumption, but consciously use it for good, because especially in these turbulent times, the world would benefit from a little more good.


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