Opinion

The online world is bad for us – it's official

The internet has brought mass paranoia and an increase in mental health disorders. Perhaps it's time we all logged off

Bad days can always be improved, just a little, by going for a walk. Image: Pexels from Pixabay

In curious symmetry this week Big Issue has startling figures about what the online world is doing to us, and something of a solution. Which is handy. 

The renowned psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Freeman reveals an incredible statistic. When he surveyed 10,000 UK adults for a new study into conspiracy thinking he found that over a quarter of them believed there was a conspiracy against them. He quoted an earlier study that found almost 40% of people believed that Covid lockdown might be an excuse to impose mass surveillance. 

When the internet offers rich pickings for whatever delusional road you want to race down, it’s not hard to see how external influence can tip towards dangerous psychosis, or at least add rough salt to troubled minds. Healthcare professionals speak of an uptick in mental health disorders post-lockdown. This is an aspect the Covid Inquiry hasn’t got to yet, but you’d hope it does. 

Freeman believes that Augmented Reality (AR) can help people suffering from psychosis to overcome the condition. He also believes that while the internet is not the only thing at fault in the ongoing crisis, we need to rebuild trust in society to prevent the sort of growing group fears that lead to mass paranoia. I hope those with power to influence pay heed. 

Rose Rouse has some advice to help too. It’s largely to get away from the online world and be in the real world. It is eminently sensible.  

Her group of older people want to, as she puts it, reflect the wild terrain of “active, rebellious oldsters” rather than the anchored, reductive narrative of older age meaning stooped backs and walking sticks. Hers is a world of being in the world, rock climbing, tennis, dancing and sex. It is intentional living and it seems to me to be a very good idea. It is about engagement with the external rather than the tripwires of the mind that come with online rabbit holes. 

And there is always walking, simple walking. Robert Macfarlane, one of the great writers of nature and place in the English language, has written a lot about walking, its joys, sometimes its physical challenges and its absolute, objective usefulness to release and un-gum the unnecessary that hammers our minds.  

In The Old Ways, still my favourite of his books, he explores paths and walks around the world. It’s not just that the writing is brilliant. He moves from taut flintiness, like some of the paths he takes, to the kind of lyricism that is so good you can taste the air he describes and are left wondering why others even try to follow. It’s that he makes you want to get out and walk.

In the opening of that book he describes a walk from his house in Cambridgeshire in fresh snow one winter evening. It takes him up a hill, over a golf course and along a chalk way, coming to an ancient Roman road and the earthworks of an Iron Age ring-fort. He sees some animal print tracks in the snow, each leading off in different direction. 

“I picked a trail,” he wrote, with an echo of Robert Frost, “and set out along it, following those tracks to see where they might lead.”  

Each of us is carrying something that weighs us down. And some days it can be harder to shake than others, as wise people like Daniel Freeman see.  

But there are few days when things don’t get a little better when we open the door, put one foot forward and follow the tracks to see where they might lead. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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