Youth and technology - enabler or inhibitor?

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” - so says Charles Dickens famously in the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a useful analogy to sum up the conflict many of the youth of today can have with technology. 

It’s never been so easy to keep in touch with everyone, listen to all (and it’s literally all) music, travel the world, buy anything you could imagine, put a bet on, win a pub quiz (cheeky!) and order a takeaway - all through the wizardry of information and code hosted in the cloud.

If you knew back in the 80s what technology there would be in 2017 and what you could do with it, it would have sounded utopian and fantasy like. But, and this is a big but, there appears to be a lot of unhappiness in today’s youth, with social media and technology being partly to blame. Why so?

Some stats from The Royal Society For Public Health’s #StatusOfMind report on young people’s mental health and wellbeing are telling.

  • Rates of anxiety and depression have increased 70 per cent in last 20 years.
  • Social media use is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.
  • 91 per cent of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking (can’t beat a face to face catch up in my humble opinion).
  • Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Most of today’s youth won’t remember that classic song from Oasis either, but could listen to it in an instant on Spotify.
  • Cyber bullying is a growing problem with seven in 10 young people saying they have experienced it.

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It does go on to say, on a more positive note, that social media can improve young people’s access to other people’s experiences of health (everyone loves a #greensmoothie) and expert health information. Every cloud...

The reason that the negative effects of technology is worrying (even though a lot of it applies to the general population too) is that youth, due to their age, tend to be more naive, easier to influence and are heavily shaped by their adolescent years and early twenties. This strange, somewhat toxic, online atmosphere may become the new normal for them and those that will come after. This is taken to extremes in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series on Netflix. Scary and creepy stuff, in case you haven’t seen it.

So, what may be a white knight in all of this? It begins with E and ends in P. Entrepreneurship. Amidst all the anxieties and depression that can be caused through social media, one of the main players, Facebook, amongst other social media behemoths, have laid the seeds and outlined a lot of the methodology (some is sneaky!) on how to increase the chances of  successfully setting up your own start-up - which doesn’t have to be a super cool ‘tech’ one, by the way.

It could be an eco-friendly clothing brand like Saint Luke, for example. There are phenomenal, and generally free, tech tools out there that can be harnessed to get your own start-up up and running at low cost. They can be used to try and change the world into a more friendly place! Google Drive to host and share company information, Gmail to e-mail anyone, Slack for internal comms, Mailchimp to send newsletters spreading your message, Asana / Trello to manage to-dos, Survey Monkey to get feedback on start-up ideas, Canva for designing marketing material, Citymapper to make sure you get to that meeting on time!, Moo.com to design and order some paper swag. The list goes on and on. These incredible tools can be used to get up and running with a simple idea in hours. You can then throw up a website for £10 a month on Strikingly, Wix or Shopify and be open to the world. Absolutely amazing. This would have taken months and tens of thousands of pounds 13 years ago when Gmail was launched, but not any more!

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But next, a top tip before I go on. I strongly suggest having a conscious break from technology for periods during the week, like Virgin HQ does. All staff are encouraged to take a step back from their computers and do something they wouldn’t normally once a week. It’s a time to pause, read books, reflect, think, be creative, meet someone new or plan - away from digital distractions. Richard Branson often says how crucial his trusty notebook has been on his entrepreneurial ventures - so try not to forget the humble paper and pen either for planning and reflecting.

Founders who build technology usually do it with the intent of it being an enabler for positive things, but sometimes that intent brings unforeseen circumstances and maybe lack of extensive digital experience had something to do with that. The youth of today are in an incredible position to use their experience of being the first true digital natives (born after 1980), unlike the founders of Facebook, Instagram, Google et al. They can use this experience to harness technology tools and more effectively build their own, which can lead to even more positive outcomes, should they want to do it. Entrepreneurship is increasingly becoming the career choice of youth and long may it continue. It’s an incredible time to be alive, to seize the opportunities that are out there and break free from a lot of the anxiety and depression. Setting up a business is not easy, of course, but if you’re following a passion and want to make a difference in the world it can feel a hell of a lot easier!

Make sure it really is the best of times for you and those that come after.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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