Bursting digital bubbles – caring for social wellbeing.
Living in a digitally connected world definitely has its benefits. As I type this on my laptop I can, if I choose, post on Facebook, search the web for an obscure fact, bid for a gadget on an auction site or just keep an eye on the headlines. I can do all this with a few keystrokes or gestures on my trackpad. But what is this digitally connected world doing for my mental health and social wellbeing? I, like many others use a range of social media platforms and I can get lost on there for hours. I have learned to accept that some of the posts I see online are deodorised, antiseptic manufactured. But I still have to stop myself, though, from thinking “why do people seem to be having a better time than me”, or “why are they more successful than me”, “why are they more interesting than me”. But I came to realise that the mundane doesn’t attract likes or smiley emojis. Nevertheless it is still hard for me not to make comparisons between my “lot in life” and the “lifestyle of others”.
Whilst our phones and tablets inform us of our screen time and habits, we still spend too many hours in our digital bubble, communicating with friends through bits and bytes. It is easy to spend swathes of time floating around the cyber world without thinking about the impact on our social wellbeing.
Social wellbeing is defined as the ability to communicate and develop meaningful relationships with others and maintain a support network that helps overcome loneliness. It is about feeling a sense of belonging and being a connected person in society. This connection though should be in real-time and authentic. Appreciating different lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs is at the heart of social wellbeing. Whist this appreciation can be built through digital exploration, there is, in my opinion no real substitution for physical social interaction.
Developing and protecting social wellbeing should start in early childhood. How many preschool toys are digital? Whilst they do help to build digital competence, they should be balanced with social toys; those that encourage social interaction. Outdoor play, role-play, dressing up, board games; are these a staple part of young children’s play or are they being superseded by the iPad and the latest virtually reality kit?
Even in the workplace the proliferation of e-mail as the main way of communicating with colleagues, online learning and an all-embracing intranet may drive efficiency and effectiveness. However, is there a negative effect on the social wellbeing of employees? Are employers placing their staff in their own digital bubbles?
Maybe one way of exploring this is to go back to the first part of the 20th century. Back in 1934 Jacob Levy Moreno in his book Who Shall Survive?, gave us the earliest graphical depictions of social networks, sociograms.
The sociogram illustrates in diagram form, the structure and patterns of group interactions. Sociograms from an organisational perspective, can be drawn based on many different criteria such as social relations, channels of influence, lines of communication. It is not my intention to go into detail about sociograms; however they are useful diagrams that illustrate the patterns of communication between those in a network. It is also illuminating to note the most prevalent and the most preferred mode of communication between those on the sociogram. Is it face-to-face or mainly digital?
I am all in favour of mental health wellbeing initiatives in organisations; however, we also need to ensure that these also develop and support social wellbeing. Supporting face to face meetings rather than e-mail missives (meetings with a purpose and a clear outcome though); encouraging staff networks; physical visits to other parts of the organisation; the creation and use of social space in offices; social activities such as staff choirs; all can have a positive impact on staff morale and social wellbeing.
As a new sole trader, developing my business whilst sitting on my own in the back bedroom/office of my house, it is easy to become immersed in the digital world by sending e-mails, searching the web. And I do on occasions, feel lonely. It is for this reason that I set myself targets to have a number of face-to-face conversations per week, to embrace authentic networking, to spend time working in public spaces. It helps me keep connected on a social level and it helps me learn from others and value their opinions, thoughts and experiences.
I purposely burst my digital bubble; but do we need to do more to encourage employers to burst the digital bubbles that are floating around organisations?