In conversation with Dr Dominique Thompson
Dr Dominique Thompson is a GP, young people’s mental health expert, TEDx speaker, author and educator. She has over 20 years of clinical experience caring for students, most recently as Director of Service at the University of Bristol Students’ Health Service. It was for this work that she was named Bristol Healthcare Professional of the Year 2017.
Dominique is also the author of a series of four mental health books for students, published by Trigger Press. These are: ‘Anxiety at University’, ‘Depression at University’, ‘Staying Well and Safe at University’ and ‘Resourcefulness at University’. Her most recent major tradebook co-authored with Fabienne Vailes, was ‘How to Grow a Grown Up’ – published by Penguin Random House in 2019.
Regular Voxel Hub blogger Liam McKinnon – who has worked alongside Dominique for various projects at OTR Bristol, as well as her freelance consultancy – sat down with Dom for a chat about all things digital wellbeing:
To start with a topical question – 2020 is proving to be a really difficult year for many reasons, not least the lockdown. The digital world is providing means for us to stay informed and connected – how are you personally using it to support your digital wellbeing at this time?
One of the best ways to look after ourselves is to connect with others, so that’s what I try to use the digital world for – seeing friends, planning future get togethers, sharing our views on fun things, like which comedians to check out, or what to watch next on Netflix. Oh and quizzes of course! The other thing online that keeps me happy is watching videos of dogs, and penguins (not together – that might be dangerous!)
Is the digital landscape currently throwing up some challenges for you?
I think we are all finding it hard to moderate our use of digital platforms. Hours can be lost down a rabbit hole of Twitter or Instagram scrolling, and before you know it you’re exhausted by other people, even though you’re on your own! I try to stay aware of this for myself, and only look at social media two or three times a day rather than dipping in and out constantly. It’s not easy though…
How can parents support their children suffering from reading bad news from the US, on climate change, racism, and other topics that many young people deeply care about? Not necessarily in relation to the 24/7 news exposure via social media, but the actual impact of upsetting events around the world and the frustration at wanting to make a change but not knowing how?
Today’s teens and young adults are some of the most politically and socially engaged young people the world has ever known – they are a fantastic generation, and can find it really hard to process what they are seeing. It can be very upsetting. Parents can support them by acknowledging that their emotions matter and are valid, and then help them to learn about and understand the history and context of what they are seeing or concerned about. For example they could read and research together about how racism has affected our society, how the planet has been damaged by human advances, and why Brexit came about. It is important that parents try to present a range of facts and information so that young people can make up their own minds and are then able to discuss the topics in a balanced way with their peers/ teachers.
Many people will now find themselves spending much more time in front of a screen. I’m really keen to get your thoughts around screen time – there’s a narrative that extended screen time can be damaging; what are your thoughts on this, in particular relation to our current situation?
I think that moderation is the key – and too much of anything can be damaging, so the real question becomes about ‘what’ we are looking at, rather than how long for. If we spend a few hours looking at comedy, feel-good films, and a mix of other easy-going content, we are unlikely to come to any harm, as long as we also exercise that day, and don’t snack whilst on screen. However, if the screen time is affecting our ability to join in normal activities, see people we care about, or be active/eat healthily, then we should probably take a good look at our screen habits and try to plan a daily routine that is a little healthier.
Interestingly, the Royal Society for Public Health report that YouTube was the only one of five social media sites explored to have a positive effect on mental health – Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, by comparison, were found to have a negative impact. Why do you think this is?
Well, no one knows for sure but my personal view is that it is the only one that doesn’t have ‘comparison with others’ at its core. All the others allow people to compare lifestyles, views, opinions and personal appearances! YouTube tends (and I’m generalising) to be about gaming, fun, education, talks, comedy music and so on, which don’t undermine our self-esteem or cause us to doubt ourselves quite so much.
What role do you think tech companies have in protecting and, even, enhancing our collective mental health?
These companies, whether they accept it or not, have a huge responsibility for the content they support and offer a platform to. If a supermarket sold you poisoned food, even though they didn’t make it, they would have a responsibility to protect you. They would be liable. But it seems much harder to police or prove the effect on mental health and wellbeing, of the digital content we absorb, of course.
Many complaints against social media platforms centre on ‘competitive’ and ‘comparative’ nature, particularly in regards to young people’s usage of the sites. How do you think we can overcome this problem to support the mental health of young people who feel distress when pitting themselves against their peers?
This aspect of social media is fundamental to so much of what we see on there, so we need to be prepared for it and educated about it. Ranting about it is about as effective as ranting about alcohol use and misuse. You might not like it, but it’s not going anywhere! So better to learn about it, and what the tricks used by the tech companies are, and then either ignore that aspect, or confront it and accept that it exists, but that you don’t have to engage with it.
This is hard to do when, as young adults, the whole evolutionary drive is to bond with peers and ‘form your new tribe’ – social media plays a huge role in bonding with them – but finding like-minded people, who don’t judge or criticise will be key to doing this successfully and happily. Easier said than done, but crucial for tolerating social media in your life.
In How To Grow A Grown Up, you explore the question ‘Is our anxiety about social media or screen time the latest moral panic, or will it justify our concerns?’ – as a follow-up to that, do you think that the ‘dangers’ of technology and the online world are sometimes overplayed in the media?
Yes, it makes for an easy answer to all the ills of the younger generation – ‘blame social media’, or ‘blame technology’. If only there were one single cause for all the stresses.
I try to keep perspective and emphasise that social media magnifies the pressures that young people are under (competitive society, academic pressure, career stress, body image worries), but which are not necessarily caused by social media. Anxiety and so on can be made worse of course, by social media, but can also be made better, it just depends what you spend your time looking at. My TEDx talk says more about this.
Also in your book, you note the disparity between the immediate and gratifying nature of the online world vs the often prolonged time periods involved in receiving mental health support. In what way/s do you think we can protect and support our wellbeing in the context of a fast-moving and ever-changing online world?
The issue here is that our younger generation have been raised and immersed in an ‘instant’ society. Instant answers, instant banking, shopping, food, taxis and so on. But not everything has kept up, so we struggle when we have to wait for mental health care for example. The way to manage this is to understand early on in life that not everything can be instant, and some things are worth waiting for. The additional problem can be that young adults have not yet fully developed the parts of the brain that control impulsive behaviour. So if they become distressed they are less able to control their impulse to lash out or hurt themselves. This is biology, not their fault. Healthcare services need to respond to this – and this is why mental health services should support young people from age 0 through to 25, not stop at 18. Biologically this would make more sense! Support them till they are better able to manage their emotions and impulsive actions.
What are your top 3 recommended places online to visit for good mental health and wellbeing advice and info?
- Young Minds website
- Student Health app (free)
- And of course – for dogs – @mrandrewcotter hilariously commentating the activities of his two labradors!
And finally, what are your top 3 tips for looking after your digital wellbeing and maintaining a healthy relationship with your online activity?
- Create rules and stick to them – e.g. three times a day to check the news/social media and no more.
- Follow some fun feeds that make you laugh or smile as it will release happy hormones like oxytocin and give you a buzz.
- Switch social media/news off an hour before bed and don’t ever let it interrupt your sleep – this is possibly the most important bit of the whole interview!
A huge thank you to Dr Dominique Thompson for her time. To follow her online for more fantastic insights check out her links here.