When thinking of an article to write for the week I go through a brainstorming process that resembles a category 5 hurricane. It’s a whirlwind of ideas smashing against one another, a rapid stream of thought going 180 miles an hour and in the end, the course will be unpredictable. There’s one thing that’s certain– the result of the brainstorming will be impactful. So after a long hurricane-force brainstorming, I’ve settled on something truly important and possibly a bit uncomfortable to talk about– mental health in the digital age. So hear me out here. I know the impulse is to question how or why a computer site relates to mental health. Will this article even be about tech? Simply put, yes. But it’s complicated.
Since the very first inklings of computers and with the advent of the internet, doctors and researchers have debated the impact of both of those on our health. It became very clear that computers and the internet don’t impair our physical health. The concerns over radiation, cancer, brain damage and so on were never proven to be a significant problem. Aside from carpal tunnel from typing too much and back and neck issues from sitting posture at the desk, the digital age didn’t physically hurt our bodies. But here came the internet, social media, and smartphones. These were the new titans of today’s computational world and they have a different concern to health– mental health.
January 9th, 2007. Steve Jobs saunters on stage in San Francisco. He’s about to announce a product that changes our everyday lives forever– the original iPhone. This was the first touchscreen smartphone and it appealed to the everyday masses. With the slogan, “There’s an App for that”, it claimed to revolutionize how we go through our lives daily, and revolutionize it did. Over a decade later, there are hundreds of smartphone models, billions of users, and we truly are more connected now than ever before. Information has never been more readily available. We now have in our pockets a piece of technology that far surpasses the computing power of the Apollo mission computers of 50 years ago.
Yet with great computing power comes great responsibility. The impact of smartphones on our mental health suggests we haven’t managed this responsibility very well and it’s affecting our youth in some pretty detrimental ways. A 2015 study from the Pew Research Center shows a few of the negative side effects on teens between the ages of 13- 17. They discovered that 57 percent more teens are sleep-deprived compared to 1991. Since 2012, depression in boys has increased by 21% and in girls by an alarming 50%. Furthermore, teens are increasingly isolated as their main communication comes from texting, messaging and posting. And to top it all off, only 10% of teens reported spending at least some time outside every day.
These statistics can be quite alarming, although smartphones do have positives too. Every year teens are becoming more intelligent, not less. Smartphones have also helped Generation Z become safer and less likely to be violent with others. Plus fewer and fewer young adults and teens are driving– 1 in 4 teens don’t have a license by the time they turn 18. And the biggest win of them all is that smartphones help kids stay informed to avoid drug use. A 2016 Monitoring the Future survey found that illicit drug use was at the lowest point among teens in 40 years.
So smartphones come as a mixed bag, but I think we all can agree there’s not much in the way of changing society– smartphones are here to stay. But what about social media? We’ve seen social media of all kinds grow and fall throughout the decades. MySpace had its day, Snapchat came in with a surge and fell hard, and even Facebook’s usage numbers are dropping. While there’s a good place for pictures of family vacations and keeping up with Aunt Sue in Delaware, it might be for the best.
Social media has been attributed to creating a space where people post their best memories but avoid posting the negatives. Even if they do post negative, they can angle that to garner attention or the desired response. This creates an illusion of what other peoples’ realities are. We look at the amazing vacation in Thailand that our friends took and start to feel bad that we’re stuck at our desks working overtime. Because of this, social media creates an environment that isn’t all that safe or appealing.
With posts like these, we often can feel lonely and rates of depression are much higher in those that log into social media every day than those who don’t. To make it all worse, social media is a war zone in the comment section. It birthed the modern-day “internet troll” and it comes from all around– family, friends, and strangers. The safety of the screen and keyboard is enough for us to feel comfortable throwing around insults, hate speech and verbal abuse. It’s no wonder social media causes so much anxiety and depression.
So What Can We Do?
Our world is an ever-changing one and at a seemingly faster rate every day. To go back is quite an unlikely option, but to cope and adjust is feasible. There’s an idea and phrase out there that’s being spread around called “digital well-being”. It’s the thought that we can still use our technology, communication tools, and social media, but limit the negative effects. By being mindful of the time we spend on our phones and on any Apps, we can begin to weed out the bad effects. This is particularly important for teens and young adults, but it affects everyone.
The other thing we can do is to unplug. No, not forever. Not even for the whole day. I know everyone has a million things to catch up on and email, calls, texts are always flowing in. But find time in your day to enjoy something for yourself. Put the technology away, and go hiking, read a book, or go talk to your friends and family. Even 10 or 15 minutes of this can be helpful in the long game. I understand we don’t all suffer from an attachment or addiction to our phones, but let’s be mindful of how they affect us regardless. We are more connected now than ever before, so let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of our own selves and our mental health in all of this. After all, life is a little more than just email, texts and Candy Crush.