Digital Hygiene for the HSC: 10 tips to effectively use devices during exam times

This is the original (long) version of the article that Luke Vu and I wrote for the Southern Courier (published on 06/08/18):


The HSC is a stressful time for students and their families. Sometimes, Year 12 can feel like an endless ordeal. To survive this gruelling war-of-attrition, young people and their families need time to relax and play, as much as they need to knuckle down to hard work. Gaming and social media are a commonly used and readily available form of leisure for young people.

Everyone knows that use of electronic devices is increasing amongst all age groups but especially amongst the young, the “digital natives”. Less well known is that use of drugs and alcohol have recently decreased amongst the young. It seems that the two trends might be linked with young people turning online for social interactions and stress relief. Happily, engagement with electronic devices comes without many of the risks associated with drugs and alcohol.

Sadly however, widespread evidence now suggests that the over-use of digital devices has significant health consequences. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently added gaming disorder (gaming as in video games) to its register of recognised disorders. Gaming disorder is very similar in description to gambling disorder. Symptoms include ever increasing amounts of time spent gaming, dereliction of life functions in order to game, and anger at being denied use of video games. This disorder is most common (but by no means found only) amongst boys. Gaming disorder often starts as gaming for stress relief. It often becomes a more serious problem when stress increases or when other mental health problems are present. The stress relief behaviour becomes pathological, pushing aside healthier ways to cope.

Social media use also has risks, and heavy use of it is often associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. Unhealthy comparisons are a common result of social media use. These comparisons can stifle motivation and action, which then leads to falling behind peers. As with gaming disorder, this leads to increased stress, and therefore increased use, thus falling further behind peers. Overuse of social media is somewhat more common amongst girls.

The following tips are methods than young people, and their families, can use to get the most out of their devices without developing an unhealthy addictive pattern:

  1. Monitor use. You need to know whether this is a problem that needs to be changed or not. The first step to changing a behaviour is to monitor the behaviour. Luckily, there’s an app for that. Actually, there are plenty of apps out there that can help you to monitor use. Apps such as Antisocial help you both monitor and control your use.
  2. Make a plan for study and online use. Any Year 12 coordinator worth his/her salt will tell you the same. You can’t rely on your motivation in the moment to get you to study: games and socials are just too fun! It is also good to do this so that your parents back off! You’ll have far fewer fights if they can see that you are being proactive about your screen use.
  3. Use games and socials as rewards, not to relax before studying. “I’ll game first and study later” – famous last words. If you use social media or game first, you will almost certainly overuse/get-caught-down-a-rabbit-hole. If you reward your study effort by going on YouTube or Insta or Fortnite, you are more likely to feel motivated to study next time you sit down.
  4. Make time to socialise in person or over the phone. Online might be where you hang out and meet your friends. Drastically cutting the time you spend on devices might lead to feelings of loneliness – and depression does not make a good study-buddy. Schedule time to meet friends in the real world in order to feel like you have a life outside of HSC-land. Other outside activities, such as exercise, can also improve mental clarity and mood.
  5. Choosing your gaming buddies wisely. Are you gaming with someone overseas or interstate? These people are in different time zones and that might pressure you to stay up too late (or too early). Are you gaming with people in different grades, or who have left school? These people don’t have the same HSC time pressures that you have, they likely won’t understand if you have to jump offline to study. Are you gaming with friends who have checked-out of school already? These people can be the worst of all. They will likely try to bring you down or criticise your effort or otherwise demotivate you.
  6. Choose your comparisons wisely. How do you feel after being on socials? If the answer is “great, I have so many wonderful friends who genuinely care about me” then carry on, you’re doing just fine. If the answer is “inadequate” then start thinking about who you are comparing yourself to. There is an old Buddhist saying “May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it is on Facebook”. Compare yourself to how you were yesterday and not to “friends” showing off their best sides.
  7. Model healthy digital use. Parents – you have to lead from the front. I don’t want to be too preachy (I know that you already have a little guilt-monger in your head that does that job for you), but you can’t expect your child to have a healthy relationship with their devices if they can see that you are overusing them yourself. Having a family discussion about electronic device time that you all engage in is a good start. Be willing to change.
  8. Consider a curfew. Electronic devices can be incredibly pleasurable and addictive. The frontal lobe of the brain (responsible for responsibility) does not fully develop until age 25. Sleep is vital for all people, especially those who need to learn – definitely no devices in bed! Don’t worry, the anger of implementing a curfew doesn’t last forever.
  9. Know who’s who in the zoo. Parents, if a 60-year-old man knocked on the door and asked your daughter to come out you might be a tad unhappy. Who are your family members spending their time with? The online world can be pretty secretive, but it’s worth having a bit of an idea about who your young person is spending time with and what activities they are doing. Having a direct, non-judgmental conversation is important.
  10. Know when to get help. When things are tough, the smart ones know when to get support. If you are consistently struggling with HSC stress and having trouble with gaming or social media, then let someone supportive know. Having real life support to work through a difficult time makes a big difference. If you’re finding that the support from family and friends is not quite enough, consider getting professional help such as a psychologist or GP for practical skills to manage HSC stress and your digital habits.

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