As we enter into the year 2014, the idea that we’re living in the 21st century is no longer novel or remarkable the way it once was. We carry powerful computers in our pockets; we’re guided to new destinations by talking navigation systems, rather than maps; and speaking of ink on paper, that’s becoming a thing of the past, too. As these once unimaginable realities have become the norm, I can’t help but notice something particularly unnerving.
You’ve probably noticed it too, because it’s evident everywhere. You can see it at restaurants, where groups of friends sit together like strangers in complete silence. You can see it at playgrounds, where parents hardly notice what their children are doing. And you can certainly find it on any highway, where half the drivers seem to be looking down rather than at the road in front of them.
At the heart of all these scenarios is the elevation of cell phones and the internet from tools of convenience, to positions of dominance, in our day-to-day lives. And what’s just started to be addressed is that despite our belief that these technologies have become essential, they are actually contributing to a rise in anxiety and depression in highly connected societies like the U.S.
The Digital World vs. Reality
These days I have a harder and harder time resisting the allure of the digital world. After all, it’s not easy when that world literally lives in your pocket. I’ll browse the internet for hours longer than I intend to, mindlessly check my phone when there’s a lull in stimulation, or even fuel my anxiety by comparing my real-life self to the carefully crafted social networking personas of long-ago acquaintances. Of course, none of this makes me happy. More of than not, it leaves me feeling anxious, mentally drained, and regretful that I wasted so much time.
Sound familiar? Recently I started to think that I couldn’t be the only one saying “just five more minutes” while endlessly scrolling through my Facebook news feed; nor could I be the only one whose anxiety spikes every time I hear the ding of a notification or text message. I wondered if maybe it’s actually common, but that we’re all just so mesmerized by technology that no one’s bringing it up.
Turns out, I didn’t know how right I was. In the past few years alone, there has been a surge in scholarly research into the impact that technology – and technology addiction – has on our lives. Unfortunately, the news isn’t great. I’ll break down just a handful of some of the recent studies:
- In 2010, a study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse indicated that between 1.5 and 8.2% of Americans and Europeans are addicted to the internet. (Internet Addiction Disorder is increasingly diagnosed but not yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) According to the study’s authors, this addiction is “characterized by excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges, or behaviors regarding computer use and Internet access that lead to impairment or distress.” The study also showed that this type of addiction often occurs alongside other disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
- A study by Anxiety UK found that frequent users of social networking sites faced negative behavior changes, such as comparing themselves negatively to others, spending excessive time on the computer, having trouble relaxing, and even becoming confrontational online. Participants in the study reported that they felt they couldn’t simply walk away from their devices; rather, they needed to power them down completely in order to take a break. “If you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed,” said Nicky Lidbetter, Anxiety UK’s CEO.
- A Chinese study published in early 2012 found that patients with Internet Addiction Disorder had abnormal white matter in their brains compared to non-addicted subjects; these same brain changes have been found in those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
- In December 2013, researchers at Kent State University published findings in the journal Computers in Human Behavior showing that college students who spend a significant amount of time talking, texting, and using the internet and social media on their cell phones are less happy, more anxious and have lower GPAs than less-frequent users. “You need time to be alone with your thoughts, recover from the daily stressors in a way that doesn’t involve electronic media,” said study author Andrew Lepp in an article with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
If you’re a regular reader, you know that a big focus of this blog is living mindfully, and using mindfulness strategies to help combat anxiety and stress. Cell phones and the internet can be great tools, of course, but they can also be huge obstacles to mindfulness because of the distraction they invite. Even if you aren’t clinically addicted to the internet, it can be extremely valuable to your mental health to take breaks from the digital world and unplug for a bit.
- Use a traditional bedside alarm clock rather than your phone. If you’re prone to getting sucked into your phone first thing in the morning, use an old-fashioned alarm clock and keep your phone in a different room while you sleep. Don’t check your phone until you’re finished getting ready.
- Ban the phone from the table. We’ve all been guilty of eating with our phone right next to our plate, as if it’s another utensil. It’s not. Eating without distraction is a great exercise in mindfulness, and banishing the cell phone from the dinner table is the perfect place to start.
- Keep the phone in your pocket when you socialize. If you’re enjoying time with friends or family, practice remaining fully engaged with those around you. Staying glued to your phone can give the impression that the people you’re with aren’t as important, and can cause you to miss out on much of the fun.
- Be unavailable sometimes. Much of the technology-related anxiety we feel comes with the expectation – put in place by the widespread adoption of smartphones — that we should be available to everyone at all times. However, just because mobile devices facilitate instant contact doesn’t mean you must be at everyone’s beck and call. Take some time to respond to that email, text or phone call if you need it – don’t worry, the world will keep turning.
- Take digital “time outs.” Every once in a while, try shutting your phone off for a couple hours. Take a hike and observe the beauty around you without having to capture every stunning vista so you can post it to Facebook. Get lost in a good book without stopping to check if anyone’s texted you lately. Unplugging, even for short periods of time, allows us to immerse ourselves in what we’re doing rather than constantly dividing our attention, which can stunt creativity and hinder enjoyment of the activity at hand. And if you think you might need a little help from technology in order to take a break from technology, good news — there’s an app for that!