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Personal lives are measured in minutes, major events in seconds. And COVID has forced our world to become even more virtual.

Our world is obsessed with instant information.

Digital addiction was already one of the commonest causes of anxiety, depression and complete mental breakdown, particularly among young people, before COVID, even more so during lockdown.

Close to limit to how much life can be happily lived online

During the height of the COVID crisis, hundreds of millions have been forced to spend far more time online or on video calls than they would otherwise have chosen, and much of that will revert.

Before the pandemic began, the average 15-25 year old in the UK already spent an average of 4 hours a day on a mobile, checking for messages every 9 minutes, with time online directly correlated with risk of mental health issues.

But that is nothing compared to the Philippines, where a 2019 survey reported people saying that they spent an average of 10 hours online.

Brazil users in the same survey said that they spent 9 hours 29 minutes online, Thailand 9 hours 11 minutes, Cambodia 9 hours, Indonesia 8 hours 36 minutes, America 6 hours 31 minutes, China 5 hours 52 minutes.  

The worldwide average is now 6 hours and 42 minutes a day of online activity.  

Even if these self-reports were a little higher than reality, this is a completely unsustainable trend with massive social implications, not just impacting emotional wellbeing.

What are we saying?  

Will young people really want to spend 80 hours a week online by 2030?  

A growing number of parents are unable to cope with young children who demand at least 8 hours a day of screen time and have lost interest in offline life.

Is this the promised digital dream or some kind of nightmare?

The Truth about Digital Happiness

The whole purpose of digital devices was to make us more happy and fulfilled, save us time, make our lives easier, relieve stress and help us relax.

That was the promise, but the reality has often been dramatically different for teenagers, especially when we consider the corrosive impact of social media on their self image. 

Now it is true that during lockdown, virtual tools have been really helpful, rapidly adopted by people who hardly used them before.

But there has also been a down-side that will endure long after the COVID crisis passes.

Most teenage girls feel unable to post unedited photos

Most teenage girls in many nations now feel unable to post images without editing to make themselves look “more attractive”.

Their self-worth often depends on being able to post multiple pictures a day of enviable or interesting experiences.

Feelings of self-loathing have become the norm. Self-harm is rocketing in many nations, especially amongst girls, while suicide rates have also soared.  

25% of 14 year olds self-harm in the UK each year

In the UK, 25% of 17-19 year old women has a mental illness, mainly depression of anxiety.

25% of 14 year old girls say they have self-harmed in the last year, 12% of 14 year old boys have done the same.

Six out of ten American teenagers say they have been bullied or harassed online.  

Part of this is sexting, where teenagers are pressured into sending smartphone images of the private parts of their bodies, to others – many of which may rapidly become much more public, causing great distress. 

Expect future reactions against hyper-digital living

As a result of all this, expect some groups to react strongly against digital life over the next 10-20 years.  

We are already seeing a new generation of hyper-connected parents in West Coast US, who are banning their nannies from going online at any time in the presence of their younger children, who are themselves totally banned from all screen contact.

These parents live in fear that the brains of their children will be damaged by too early access to digital stimulation.

They are probably correct.

Expect far more research evidence by 2025 that children who stare at screens for more than 7 hours a day have different brain structures. But the greatest risks may turn out to be emotional, not just changes to the wiring of young brains.

Ultra-high definition, bright screens can change brain structure

It’s not just the content of what is being watched or experienced, but the massive jump in luminosity.

The latest mobile and TV screens project images which are deliberately processed to be sharper, brighter, more vibrant, more intense, more visually stimulating, than reality itself.  

When you combine surreal imaging with movement on screen, you create something that is almost irresistibly attractive to the eye.

Just try talking to someone while a video is playing just beyond sight, behind them, without losing eye contact. 

How fast can the digital world take us?

Some say that daily life for most people has never changed so fast, and we must be close to the limits of human endurance, but despite all the above, this is untrue.

Large populations have coped surprisingly well with far more dramatic, rapid and convulsive changes at times of natural disaster or regional wars.

But one thing is certain: expect a growing market for rapid ways to completely de-stress, whether short breaks, spas, manicures, adrenaline-busting experiences, water-sports, saunas, live concerts and so on.

And a premium for "breathing the same air" - authentic experience, shared in person with others.

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