Technology has made our lives infinitely easier with the instant news cycle, globalization, and the distraction of social media, but could the cost be anxiety and depression?
As of January 2019, 21.74 million Australians use some form of digital device, a total of 87% of the Australian population. Research from the Australian Internet and Social Media 2019 usage data report showed 93% of these digital users use the internet every day, and can spend an average of 5.5 hours per day online
Of course, this percentage should come as no surprise as Australians now use their phones like mobile computers while we make the shift from traditional media to digital media.
These days, on our phones we can check emails, shop online, access news, download music, and videos, engage in social media, order food, and look at maps… the list goes on. Research suggests we are becoming codependent with our phones, with some people experiencing significant stress and anxiety when they are separated from their devices.
Experts explain that the effects of technology may be physically changing our brain structure and function. The results of these findings can be sectioned into five categories; perpetual distraction, sleep deprivation, work/life balance, social comparison and FOMO.
With great technology, comes great distractions.
The persistent beeping, vibrating, and flashing of notifications mean that we are constantly persuaded to interrupt what we are doing to check our phones.
In fact, a report by UNSW titled, Growing Up Digital Australia, has warned that digital technology has become a growing distraction from learning and that students are less able to focus on educational tasks. Additionally, research shows correlations between high smartphone and internet use, and poor cognitive skills such as attention, memory, and learning.
Ph.D. psychologist and author of The Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships book, Daniel Goleman, speaks in detail about the correlation.
“We have been seduced by distraction,” Dr. Goleman writes.
“We are being pulled away from paying attention to the things that enrich our lives.”
The relationship between technology and anxiety is not a new phenomenon as we may have been led to believe. Writer, journalist and technologist, William Powers, recounts in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age that anxiety over new technology and the busyness of life dates back as far as ancient Rome.
But, how do we control the current phenomenon of perpetual distraction burdened by the fast-paced evolution of technology?
“It comes down to being mindful rather than blindly adopting ‘digital maximalism’ as a way of life,” Mr. Powers said.
“What I am proposing is a new digital philosophy that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart.”
“The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses.”
Ahh, sleep. It sure would be nice to get it sometime. Unfortunately, with the emergence of digital media, sleep is looking unlikely to happen to the degree we crave. This is because many of us use social media at bedtime.
Sure, we go to bed with the intention to sleep, but then we want to check our messages. “Just for a second,” we say, and then an hour later we are watching another cat video and taking our seventh BuzzFeed quiz to find out which pizza topping matches our personality.
We may think this is a perfect way of rejuvenating after a grueling and stressful day, but we fail to recognise we may be doing more damage than good.
Research confirms that phones and sleep are a bad combination. In fact, technology has the effect of keeping people alert so they can keep scrolling.
A study conducted by Ph.D. Professor of Sleep Medicine, Charles Czeisler, explains how the artificial blue light given off by smartphones encourages the effect of over-stimulating our brains, making it hard to wind down and switch off.
Hence, these chemicals disrupt the body’s ability to produce the sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin.
As much as we wish we could argue that the cat video was funny enough to relieve all of the day’s stresses, unfortunately, experts will argue that poor sleep tends to mean poorer resilience and higher levels of anxiety and stress.
Of course, research will not change the nighttime routine we have developed, and stopping our consumption of technology before bedtime cold turkey is an unlikely affair. However, there are some smaller strategies we could adopt to assist our quality of sleep.
Dr. Natalia David is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center. She specialises in behavioral sleep medicine and pain psychology and has written suggestions to develop a better night’s sleep.
“If it’s difficult to limit phone or tablet use right before bed,” Dr. David wrote in her Brain; Mental Health; Prevention report.
“Then research how to adjust certain settings on your device to reduce negative impacts on sleep.”
“For example, adjust the screen brightness, or use your smartphone’s night mode feature to limit the amount of blue light you get.”
Dr. David also suggests downloading a sleep app on the phone to help relax before bed.
“These apps are designed to help us fall and stay asleep.”
“Many of these apps offer free, soothing music or relaxation exercises, such as guided imagery, that can help your busy brain quiet down,” she said.
While we continue our studies at UC, many of us have a job to keep up with the cost of living. And, as we live in the digital era, social networking and media have changed work dynamics.
While in previous times, there was a clear boundary between where work ended and personal life began, now it seems the two very much blend together. For example, we have our work email connected to our phones making us constantly available.
The idea of a 9 to 5 work schedule has more or less been thrown out of the window in response to this. Employees are now taking their workload home to finish, or they are permanently working from home therefore being constantly surrounded by technology.
Either way, the consequence of the disruption of the work/life balance has proven detrimental.
Research has suggested that being ‘always on’ and accessible by technology while working from home leads to the blurring of work and non-work boundaries.
A 2017 United Nations report found that 41% of remote workers reported high-stress levels, compared to just 25% of office workers.
To combat this issue, Linda Stone, a writer, and consultant who taught as an adjunct faculty in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program say that people should stop thinking about ‘time management’ and start thinking about how to better manage their attention.
Ms Stone suggests thinking about where we need or want our focus to be.
“That answer is individual. Only we know when the convenience of sending an e-mail from home becomes a burden,” she said.
We all have the tendency to compare ourselves to others, and the social comparison theory suggests that we use these types of comparisons to evaluate our self-worth.
The social comparison theory was introduced in 1954 by psychologist Leon Festinger and can involve any characteristics of human life: e.g. behaviors, ideas, skills, mindsets, etc.
Social media now sets the foundation of this theory as it implements metrics to distinguish social success. This is evident through followers, likes, shares, and so forth.
Research shows the social comparison theory relates to the feeling of inferiority, making us have higher self-esteem issues.
For example, if someone has more likes or friends than us, it can make us feel inferior and increases anxiety levels through the hyper fixation of comparing.
The phenomenon of image manipulation on social media has arguably been detrimental to self-esteem, with a specific focus on young women.
Research by the Royal Society of Public Health warns the notion of the ‘idealised body image’ promotes and enhances unrealistic expectations of how young people should look and behave.
Their study found nine in ten young females say they are unhappy with the way they look.
These social comparison effects are also seen through the disparity between reality and what people post on social media.
This effectively gives the false impression that others lead a more exciting, perfect, or interesting life than our own.
Dr. Susan Biali Haas is an award-winning physician who speaks and writes about stress management, burnout prevention, mental health, wellness, and resilience, and has written suggestions to combat the social comparison theory in the digital age.
“Become aware of, and avoid your triggers,” she explained in an article. “Start noticing the situations that cause you to play the comparison game.”
Another suggestion is to remind yourself that other people’s ‘outsides’ can’t be compared to your ‘insides.’
“Continue to wish others well, of course, but in the event that their life gives you a reason to feel bad about yours, remind yourself that you don’t actually know what goes on behind closed doors,” she explained.
Finally, Dr. Haas said to use the social comparison theory as motivation to improve what actually matters.
“This human propensity to want what others have is such a waste of time unless what you see and ‘covet’ in another is something of deep worth, such as their generosity or kindness,” she said.
FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is a common acronym to describe the social anxiety of missing an important or fun event, whether this be a social event, work commitment, or potential opportunity.
This fear encourages us to want to be constantly connected. The emergence of digital media has assisted this connection, but it has also encouraged our digital media addiction. Dr. Halley Pontes, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences has researched the psychological impacts of FOMO.
In her article in the CyberPsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking Journal, Dr Halley Pontes said, “when experiencing FOMO chronically, it could lead to addictive behaviour towards social media use.”
“It is important to know that FOMO may be worsened by the fact that we are being constantly reminded about what we are missing out on via all the notifications we receive to our phones.
“One potential strategy to curb FOMO may be to manage which notifications we want to receive,” he said.
Aarti Gupta is a Professor of Global Environmental Governance with the Environmental Policy Group and Department of Social Sciences at Wageningen University has also suggested strategies to combat FOMO.
“If it may not be viable to deactivate your social media accounts, then learn to limit your activity,” she suggested.
“One CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) technique prescribes setting aside a certain time of day to check all your social media outlets. Find a time of day that works for you to catch up with Facebook and stick to it.”
Another suggestion is to use the mindfulness technique. This technique refers to a nonjudgmental observation or awareness that is focused on the present experience.
Following this advice, Dr Gupta describes a mindfulness immersion exercise:
“Take a mundane daily activity like washing the dishes and try to sense the muscles you use to wash, the scent of the soap, and the feeling of bubbles between your fingers,” she said.
“Rather than multitasking or hurrying up this task to get on to the next one, appreciate your current state of being.
“Mindfulness can help those with major FOMO as you enjoy what you are doing in the here and now, instead of yearning for what else could be.”
There is no denying technology has made our lives infinitely easier in some ways; however, there can also be hidden costs. Balancing the attention you spend scrolling through social media with the time spent on yourself is a challenge many of us face.
So why not give it a go and try switching off your phone for an afternoon. You are the one who can decide if technology and your life are a match made in heaven or hell.