Digitally Vulnerable Digital Natives

By Kenneth Poon

COVID-19 has led to significant disruptions globally and more people forced to work from home and connect virtually rather than physically. Perhaps, what we are experiencing might really just be an acceleration towards a “new normal”, in which most parts of our lives are spent online and we only have limited physical connections with other people — might this be the new default for social experiences? We need to look no further than youths today to observe signals of this emerging strategic issue.

Digital natives has long been a term used to describe people born during the age of digital technology and are familiar with computers, the internet and mobile devices from a very young age. Our youth are increasingly described as such natives. How well do we understand the psychological and emotional state of digital natives, constantly navigating the “always on” culture of hyper-connectivity? CSF investigates Digitally Vulnerable Digital Natives as part of ongoing research into the impact of technology on society.

Digital natives mostly comprise the Millennial (born between the early-1980s and mid-1990s) and Generation-Z (born in the mid-1990s onward) cohorts. Digital natives are highly conscious of their online image and face social pressures and unrealistic aspirations created by hyper-connectivity.[1] It is no wonder then that there seems to be increasing psychological health issues and rising suicide rates among youth across socio-economic classes, with cyberbullying and the need for social validation among the triggers.

Perhaps, an entryway into understanding the psyche and emotional health of digital natives would be to scrutinise how they seek release. Some emergent stress relief and self-therapy techniques have become widely popular on social media. Digital natives have taken to them as alternatives to traditional forms of therapy.

Mental Health Vlogs. Influencers — with no medical expertise — publicly share videos on platforms like YouTube in which they discuss personal struggles with mental illnesses and emotional stress. Some of these videos generate lengthy discussion among viewers and between viewers and the vloggers.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). ASMR is an auditory stimulus that causes a tingling sensation down the neck. ASMR is massively popular on YouTube. The music platform Spotify even has multiple ASMR playlists tailored for sleep and meditation.

Oddly Satisfying Videos. These videos feature objects handled in particular ways, like the mixing of paint or the cleaning of objects, that have led viewers to say that they feel “brain massaged”, lightly hypnotised and calm.

On Reddit, a social media platform popular among digital natives not only globally but also in Singapore, the number of subscribers has sharply increased in the last four years for channels that discuss these three genres. On these channels, Redditers are actively sharing and discussing newly discovered material and techniques that work for them.

But how do they work? Experts explain that mental health vlogs normalise and validate the severe mental illnesses experienced by viewers, making them feel safe.[2] This experience of a safe space might explain the popularity of these tools. People can access tools like ASMR individually and from the comfort of home, without having to be vulnerable to another person.[3] Experts have also explained that Oddly Satisfying videos curb anxiety by taking up space in one’s working memory, leaving less room for thinking and worrying about other things.[4]

Nevertheless, the accessibility and popularity of online communities forming around these genres have led to concerns about worrying effects. ASMR users have said that they experience increasing intolerance to the calming effects of ASMR clips and have a constant need to find new videos with different triggers. This could indicate addiction. Digital natives may also take these tools as alternatives to formal clinical treatment.

In a plausible future of pervasive connectivity enabled by 5G hyper-speeds and further enhanced by virtual reality (VR), masses may turn to digital means of stress relief. Online communities will continue to grow around discussions on stress relief techniques. Anxiety and stress management through such tools may become normalised.

Mainstream businesses may capitalise on this trend and start offering digital therapy and spa sessions, much like how Millennials had turned to arcades and LAN-gaming centres to de-stress. Such businesses already exist. Whisperlodge is an ASMR spa set up by Melinda Lauw, a young enterprising Singaporean based in New York. Her company offers personalised live ASMR therapy sessions in which she would create different sounds to trigger relaxation for clients.

Might digital natives with serious mental conditions avoid professional help in the future not because of any stigmas, but because alternative but ineffective digital therapies become popularised? At best, vulnerable individuals could be reliant on digital immersion and withdraw from the real world, but more severe cases may have disastrous outcomes. Earlier this year, a teenage girl in Malaysia killed herself after an Instagram poll she put up concluded with 69 per cent of her followers voting in support of her killing herself.

More extreme cases of anxiety and struggles, coupled with poor community support, may lead to tragic results like self-harm and suicide. There are mental health vlogs that discuss struggles with impulse-control disorders like “dermatillomania”, a condition that causes people to pick their skin repeatedly, often resulting in wounds. Such videos require viewer discretion as some images may be a severe trigger for anyone sensitive to topics like self-harm.[5]

As these tools evolve and become more sophisticated, it becomes more uncertain how exactly digital natives will become more vulnerable. However, there are signals of growing complexity in the types of tools available. Take the emergence of ASMR Partners as an example. Owen Riley is a 17-year-old boy who has never had a girlfriend, but has become a popular ASMR artist who role-plays as a boyfriend. His YouTube channel has at least half a million subscribers.

We have seen reports of shut-ins, otherwise known as hikikomori, emerging all around the world. How will these tools deepen an already existing problem, and push already vulnerable youth even further away from help? As more of us spend time online for work and play during the COVID-19 pandemic, might such vulnerabilities expand to the non-digital natives, such as boomers?

Research is too nascent to explain the long-term effects and vulnerabilities of these new digital techniques. Users may become a new vulnerable group with a higher exposure risk to online manipulation. There is already growing controversy about how period-tracking apps are monetising women’s personal data by selling these data to social media platforms like Facebook for targeted advertisements.

Research that is cohort or age group specific is also lacking. Current research only focuses on digital natives, but we do not know how other groups of people who did not grow up in the cyber world are interacting with digital stress relief tools. Might we need to further study the range of tools and their users? Perhaps the popularity of self-therapy tools may be a helpful marker to understand psychological and emotional well-being of a people.

At CSF’s biennial Foresight Conference in 2019, participants noted that digital natives have a strong preference for ambient intimacy — a shallow but pervasive form of intimacy driven by social media and other relatively frictionless forms of communication — over face-to-face interactions and deep interpersonal connections. This raises questions as to how these tools may affect the importance of traditional support systems like the family. We will perhaps also need new forms of psychiatric interventions to care for and serve the needs of digital natives.

Regardless, the rising popularity of digital stress relief tools is surely an early signal of how the digital natives of Society 4.0 will approach stress and relaxation.

Kenneth Poon is Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

[1] We have excluded Gen-X and earlier cohorts from the category of digital natives because they would only have encountered social media and hyper-connectivity at working age.

[2] Naslund et al., “Naturally Occurring Peer Support through Social Media: The Experiences of Individuals with Severe Mental Illness Using YouTube,” PLoS ONE 9 10 (2014).

[3] Lily Brown; cited in MaryKate Wust, “Sounds Too Good to Be True? Delving into the Strange and Soothing World of ASMR”, Penn Medicine News, News Blog, 18 October 2018, accessed 12 November 2019.

[4] Reid Wilson; cited in Tyler Kingkade, “The People Who Love to Watch Other People Clean,” The Atlantic (7 August 2019).

[5] HMIY Blog, “10 Mental Health Youtubers We’re Here For,”, 3 August 2017, accessed 11 November 2019.

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