Filipinos aged 15 to 24 are in a worse mental health state today, with close to 1 for every 5 Pinoy youth having considered ending their life and 6 in 10 not reaching out to anyone about their condition. These are some of the key findings of the 2021 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS5), a nationwide survey on Filipino youth conducted at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic led by the University of the Philippines Population Institute (UPPI) and funded by the Department of Health (DOH).
Monash University, a global, research-intensive university based in Melbourne, Australia, believes holistic and preventive measures can help keep students and young people safe from the threat of mental illnesses and disorders. Monash highlights the importance of taking a closer look at the state of mental health of Filipino youth in relation to modern technology use.
Even without the mobility restrictions and anxiety of the pandemic lockdowns that formed part of the backdrop for the abovementioned survey, Pinoy youth’s mental health remains a growing concern. With the young generation being digital natives, they are very much exposed to new technologies and in fact rely heavily on their gadgets and the internet. While these technologies have their benefits, excessive use, too much internet and social media, early exposure to unsafe and graphic content, and increased screen time, however, also negatively affect their young, impressionable minds.
Smartphone, the internet, social media: An issue of balance
There’s nothing wrong with going online to make friends, connect with family members and keep up to date with one’s interests. For some, scrolling on social media, watching videos online and playing games are ways to de-stress after school or work and before moving on to other tasks for the day.
Smartphones can alleviate anxiety and depression when used properly. Assistant Professor in Human-Computer Interaction at Monash University Dr. Benjamin Tag and his co-researchers noted in their paper titled “Your Phone, Your Emotions and Everyday Life”2 how going online has been considered a digital emotion regulation strategy. Sharing funny videos, memes and stories are seen as a means to increase elation the same way that listening to curated playlists can boost focus or elicit certain emotions. With online being so accessible and available — a phone, an internet connection and a few apps are all it takes — it is easily a good platform to regulate emotions.
The problem is when the supposedly occasional, short, fun online session – whether on social media, shopping app or video and gaming platforms — becomes frequent and longer and then turns into an addiction, which can cause sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety and depression. In the Philippines, young people are the second-largest users of smartphones. Those aged 18 to 24 account for more than 30 percent of the 84.45 million Filipinos who use social media. These mean the youth are a vulnerable group: Too much social media exposure alone, many cases of which are unsupervised, increases the risks of developing social and behavioral issues such as impulsivity, impatience, anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness the way forward
This is not to say Pinoy youth should not depend on modern technology. Going cold turkey on smartphone and internet use is not the solution. Mindfulness, strategic and guided technology and internet use are what Deputy Director of Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies Professor Craig Hassed recommends.
“Depending on your level of motivation, carve out 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes twice a day to practice mindfulness meditation. Call these full stops punctuating your day. As often as you remember, between the completion of one activity and the commencement of another, have mini-meditations of 5, 10, 20, 30 or 60 seconds. Call these commas punctuating your day,” shares Hassed.
Instead of scrolling and using the phone between tasks, taking a break and doing mindful activities such as meditating, being in nature or simply closing one’s eyes will do wonders for one’s well-being. This is a way of actively choosing to depend on digital tools less and exploring ways of de-stressing offline more.
But the battle for a healthier mental state is not a young person’s fight alone, says Chris Bain, Professor of Practice in Digital Health at Monash University. Support from parents, grandparents and the entire family in both times of distress and joy serve as a protective barrier that shields the youth from mental illnesses and promotes overall wellness. Knowing there are people with whom they can share their confusions, frustrations and problems can spell a difference as it makes them feel seen and heard and therefore important.
Sometimes, even just the simple act of asking someone if they are okay or answering this question sincerely when asked makes a huge difference. This is what RU OK? Day, a national day of action in Australia marked on the second Thursday of September each year, promotes. The event encourages people to start meaningful conversations whenever they notice a colleague, friend or family struggling with life. Monash University has been supporting the RU OK? Day initiative since 2012. For this year’s celebration, Monash University hosted several events to highlight the importance of having a support system to prevent suicides. The activities include a morning tea session, all-day fitness center access, a coffee and walk event, and an online wellness and mindfulness session on Zoom.
Monash University offers free in-campus counseling, online psychological services, and various programs to all students who need support and companionship. The university also has mental health programs to enable students to learn more about mental wellness and how they can help others, with topics ranging from stress management, and friendship training to mental health first aid and suicide prevention. Resources both for university staff and students are also available on the Monash University website to increase awareness on mental health.