“AH BOY AH! You’re always on your phone!” “Girl, stop staring at your screen and talk to us!”
Such admonishments are common within today’s Singaporean households, as social media has taken up a huge part of youths’ time.
According to a 2021 survey by the Straits Times, two-thirds of Singaporean children aged 7-9 use their smartphones daily, and a majority of youth from ages 13-16 spend above 2 hours every day on social media. In a 2015 survey, global research consultancy firm TNS found that Singaporean millennials (aged 16-30) spent an average of 3.4 hours a day online.
The overuse of online platforms has led to an increase in mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Part of the cause is doomscrolling, which is the process of compulsively scrolling through bad news.
Why Many in My Generation are Hooked on Doomscrolling
Several factors feed into this.
First, when compared to mature adults, studies show that adolescents generally show higher levels of emotionality, with frequent, intense, and volatile emotions.
Second, recent global events have led to crises occurring on an unprecedented scale. According to Darrell Bricker, the 21st century has had more unsettling events than any other century as remembered by mankind, with 84% of people globally saying the world is becoming a more dangerous place.
Online media has allowed the world to observe these developments almost instantaneously and negative global news is more accessible to the new, digitally native generation than ever before. These negative news cycles feed anxiety, which, according to Forbes contributor Tess Brigham, stems from a sense of lack of control over one’s life.
Third, as noted by one WebMD article, when youth feel upset about something in the news, they tend to look for information that confirms how they feel.
In a world that is becoming increasingly chaotic, young people are driven to seek control in their quest for meaning, identity, and belonging. In extreme cases, it can lead youth down a path of violent radicalisation. For example, the British and Qatari governments have variously expressed concerns about radicalisation arising from social media content relating to the Israel-Hamas war.
In less extreme cases, we have the black-hole timesuck of doomscrolling.
To make things worse, social media algorithms, which recommend similar content based on a user’s online activity and engagement, further reinforce the morbid search for corroborative information that confirms and affirms one’s negative feelings.
These algorithms pushing targeted content towards users have led to spiking screen times, especially among youth. According to the Common Sense Census, between 2019 and 2021, there was a notable rise in daily screen usage. For tweens aged 8 to 12, the average screen time increased from four hours and 44 minutes to five hours and 33 minutes. Similarly, for teens aged 13 to 18, the average daily screen time rose from seven hours and 22 minutes to eight hours and 39 minutes.
The desire amongst youth engaged in some form of “soul-searching” in negative news cycles, coupled with social media’s ability to provide it, results in youth being trapped in a cycle of doomscrolling. This makes doomscrolling an insidiously alluring labyrinth that is hard for youth to break away from.
What They’re Missing Out On
Many youth who are caught in the vicious cycle of doomscrolling and viewing short snippets of content on social media, which are engineered to spike dopamine levels, end up missing out on longform, which is written content that is lengthy, and in-depth.
With space and depth, longform writing engages topics with more granularity and can expose the reader to nuance and different perspectives. This inculcates a sense of open-mindedness and the ability to critically engage with beliefs and values that may be at odds with one’s own, a meaningful contrast to the narrow views of social media “echo chambers”.
Conversely, the neglect of longform results in a more superficial understanding of the world, which has negative implications for youth and society.
Sustained engagement with longform content also strengthens attention spans and reading skills, translating to better performance in aspects of life such as schoolwork in the long term.
A survey from Singapore Polytechnic in 2019 revealed a difference in news comprehension among youth based on their choice of news sources. Young people who preferred social media, which tends to lack in-depth, longform articles found in conventional news sources, showed a poorer understanding of current affairs. This was evident in their quiz performance: those who primarily used social media for news scored 47.6% in a current affairs quiz, whereas those who relied on news apps scored higher, at 54.2%, on the same quiz.
The ease with which social media can manipulate young people’s perception of truth puts them at risk of being trapped in echo chambers, where they only encounter views that reinforce their own. This often results in embarrassing levels of personal ignorance, but more seriously, it can contribute to political, ideological, or social polarisation. And in extreme cases, this environment can even lead to self-radicalization, becoming a major concern.
The neglect of longform can also result in mental health consequences for youth of varying degrees of severity. It can result in youth being overly worried about issues that may not be as severe as they are portrayed to be online. According to the American Psychological Association, psychologists are seeing an increase in news-related stress, with young people’s moods increasingly affected and bothered by the news.
The Way Forward
The above consequences are preventable through the disciplined digest of longform.
In a screen-time age, the classical discipline of soaking in text should all the more be emphasised during a child’s developmental years. Parents have a responsibility to inculcate this value in their children. In truth, children can even be exposed to factual texts from a younger age, instead of subsisting on a steady diet of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl – God rest their souls.
At school, because of the ubiquity of (mis)information, a greater emphasis should be placed on the ideals of research and the formation of a comprehensive understanding of issues. While youth are currently required to debate and write about current affairs at 14, this could be pushed down to 12, to equip tweens with the skills they’ll need to engage responsibly with global issues at a younger age.
When youth gain exposure to both detail-oriented texts and current affairs at a younger age, they have a greater window of opportunity to develop more familiarity with fields that interest them. This interest, coupled with a familiarity with factual texts, can, in turn, increase the appreciation for longform amongst youth.
The value of engaging with longform must be passed down through generations. A society that neglects longform en masse will be one that is less refined, less sophisticated, and less advanced than one that embraces it.
Ezekiel Tan is a Year 1 student at Eunoia Junior College.
This is an invited opinion piece. The opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to have your work featured on Regardless, please write to us at [email protected]