Belfast Telegraph

'Our so-called achievement society has produced lots of winners... but it creates plenty of losers too'

By David Quinn

The daughter of a friend told him recently that she was glad smartphones weren't around when she was very young. She said that if they had been, then she and her friends would have spent a lot less time playing together and a lot more time alone indoors on their phones. It was an insightful comment for a 16-year-old.

As it is, she knows that she spends too much time on whatever electronic device is to hand. But she also knows that if she is not on social media then she will have a lot less contact of any kind with her friends.

It's a trap and they are all caught in it. You might want to meet your friends face-to-face a lot more, but for the most part they are content to 'chat' on social media. So what do you do? You join in.

Overuse of smartphones is apparently connected with mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. When you're on social media, you can tell moment by moment how popular you are. How many people are responding to your latest post. How many 'likes' it is getting. You soon find out what is popular and what is not. The social pressure to conform is greater than ever.

And there is no escape from the popularity contest. Not so long ago, it came to an end when you walked in the front door. Now, it follows you into your bedroom via social media. This is without even considering online bullying.

All of this creates tremendous pressure and parents aren't sure what to do.

Forbidding your teenager a smartphone is like forcing them into social exile.

We might pride ourselves today on the fact that we no longer shove religion down the throats of our children, but instead middle-class parents shove middle-class expectations down their children's throats.

There is one way to be a good, well-paid member of the middle-class and that is to study hard, get into a good course in a good university, get a good job, preferably in one of the professions, and then you are set up for life.

This suits many of our children, but it doesn't suit others, who can easily find themselves doing a course, and later a job, that they don't like and to which they aren't suited.

Students who fall into the average, or below-average, range can easily decide not to run in the race at all, because they think they will lose. Sometimes, the ones who don't want to take part in it are the most intelligent, because they can see through the whole thing. But they can be made to feel like losers, as well.

I came across an essay recently by a Korean philosopher named Byung-Chul Han, who now lives in Germany. The essay is called The Burnout Society.

Han says that, in the past, we lived in 'disciplinarian' societies, which were governed by prohibitions and commandments.

They were dominated by the word 'no'. We were to limit our appetites. Now, he says, we live in 'achievement' societies dominated by the word 'can'.

This sounds fantastic and a huge improvement on what went before. But there is a huge downside, according to Han. In achievement societies, what happens if you can't achieve? What happens if you don't measure up?

We have hardly begun to think about the consequences of living in an achievement society. Typically, we only see the upside. We haven't properly recognised the downside.

This is the society in which we are raising our children. It has winners, plenty of them. But it also has 'losers', and there are plenty of them as well. It's very easy to see yourself as a loser when you don't achieve, when you don't measure up.

So, what's to be done? Did the hippies have it right? Do we need to 'turn on, tune in and drop out'?

Of course, if we all dropped out we'd become poor again and then the disciplinary society would snap back into place. Instead, maybe we just need to moderate the achievement society, to reduce the attendant pressures so as to allow our children, and us, their parents, to escape from the trap we have created.

But first we need to see that it is a trap.

Belfast Telegraph

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