Fifteen years ago, many conscientious Americans were concerned about the “digital divide” in the United States: The inequitable access to the internet along class lines, and the impact this would have in perpetuating privilege, poverty and educational disparities. Today, while there are those who still do not have access to the internet, the number is much fewer. In 2015 having internet access—particularly through ownership of a smartphone—seems to be considered a basic need, along with food, water, healthcare and shelter. There is certainly tremendous opportunity for empowerment and enrichment that owning a smartphone provides. But at what costs to our mental health are we marching more deeply into the digital age?
There has been copious research on the effects of our pervasive smartphone use that it directly affects our physiology:
By providing rapid-fire stimulation, triggering the quick release of dopamine, the “reward and gratification” neurotransmitter in our brain. As the dopamine burst recedes, we are left craving for more stimulation (ever wonder why you check you constantly check your phone for no reason? That’s a response to a craving.)
By emitting frequencies and brightnesses of light that suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone essential for sleepiness, causing us to both sleep less and more poorly
By exposing us to cellular waves can cause put us at greater risk for brain cancer
These in themselves have psychological and emotional consequences, which receive great attention in the media. As a mental health professional, I have been reflecting on the more subtle and less obvious impacts that being constantly “plugged in” has on our mental health:
Shorter Attention Span & Difficulty Being Present
Hyperlinks are probably the worst thing that has happened to our ability to focus. When we read anything online—including the blog post—we are constantly tempted by the authors themselves to distract ourselves by following a link to another web page with implied essential relevance to the current text. This sets us up to expect and even welcome distraction – and if it is not provided, then we generate it ourselves. One study showed that an inert smartphone merely being in one’s field of vision (but not used or monitored) is enough to erode the quality of a live conversation.
Difficulty Being With Ourselves & Less Attention To Our Inner Lives
Being with ourselves is hard. To really be with ourselves is to acknowledge and grapple with difficult feelings, beliefs and urges; we might be in physical pain; we might tread on existential questions about meaning and death. (Of course, we also have the opportunity to savor things we normally take for granted: sensory experiences, emotions such as joy or excitement or love.) But we live in an age where it is possible to be outside of ourselves 100% of the time, and in a culture that encourages us to do just that. Our culture glamorizes nonstop consumption, production, and online social engagement. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of stimulation and forget who we are—an existential state so terrifying that we feel compelled to dive even more deeply into the world of “content” rather than reality.
Many studies show that social media tends to make us feel worse about ourselves, because we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Of course, what we see on social media is not a reflection of reality—or at least all of it. People tend to curate what they post online to create an image of themselves they most want to establish in other people’s minds: of being attractive, intelligent, successful, funny, happily partnered, world-traveled, well-educated, etc. (This is something we naturally do offline as well, in constructing our personas.) In real life, however, we pick up on a fuller and more balanced picture of who someone is, because in live interactions people cannot control their image as completely. As more of social lives move online, our picture of reality becomes more distorted and our self-esteem is in constant jeopardy.
Taking all of the above into account—shorter attention spans, difficulty being present with our full selves, and a tendency to overcompare—it is easy to understand how we also tend to judge others prematurely. In an age when everything essential about ourselves is thought to be reducible to a Facebook or OKCupid profile page, and when we are exposed to a vast sea of potential friends and partners, we are less likely to want to take the time to get to know people deeply. Just look at the wild success of Tinder: we are thrilled by the power we feel in taking an intrinsically messy and vulnerable process (dating) and turning it into one of instant acceptance or rejection, the already-diminished painful feelings of which are tempered further by the anaesthetizing promise of ever-more possibilities. It is much easier to make snap judgment than lurk in the discomfiting complexity of ourselves and others.
Difficulty Tolerating the Unknown & Erosion of Imagination
How often, in middle of a conversation, will you or the person you’re talking to pause to Google a question that just arose? The temptation to satisfy our curiosity instantaneously is often too great to resist (most of the time we don’t even try to resist it.) As a result, we become totally hooked on instant gratification, and more easily frustrated when we don’t or can’t know the answer to something.
In psychology we use the tern negative capability to describe someone’s capacity to tolerate the unknown. In the pre-digital age, we might reflect deeply on ambiguity or unanswered questions in our lives. We might use our imagination and critical thinking skills to come up with plausible solutions to a problem. Now we Google our symptoms and consult Wikipedia, letting our minds off the hook (check out this stimulating debate on the effects of instant-access to knowledge).
Why is this a problem for mental health? Because our subjective, interior, emotional lives are often confusing, contradictory, blurry, and messy, and it takes a certain amount of grit and patience to find internal clarity. The more we condition ourselves to find easy answers, the more frustrated we will become at not easily knowing ourselves – which leads us to step outside of our skins entirely.
Because we are so numbed-out and distracted all the time, we may not notice the insidious effects of our voluntary enslavement to technology. If you seek greater well-being and are not sure how to get it, or think you have everything you want but are still stressed out and mysteriously dissatisfied, consider the impact your technology use is having on your mental health.