Technology & Mental Health

Technology has become an integrated part of our lives, from the way we access information, interact with friends, purchase products, order food, and even how we date. We live in a time where convenience is becoming one of the biggest commodities and thanks to technology we rarely need to leave our houses these days if we don’t want to.

If we’re honest, technology in itself is a neutral entity, it is a product or service that has been dreamed up in hopes of making our lives more efficient, easier, or entertaining in some way. Yet, despite all the positive aspects that technology has brought to our lives, there are countless articles linking technology to negative aspects such as depression, addiction, and lower social skills. Why is this?

Well, the simple answer is that with any advancement there are also obstacles to overcome. Take the industrial revolution for example, it gave us many great creations such as cars, the light bulb, and the ability to build quickly, but with that also came massive pollution, child labor, and the modernization of weapons.

Below is a brief overview of some effects that technology has on health and wellness, plus how to combat these possibly negative scenarios.

The Loneliness/ Antisocial Debate

We all, or I hope we all, have seen the viral video of the 5 teenage girls who were perched in the nose bleed section of a Colorado Rockies-Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game taking selfies with hot dogs, completely oblivious to the fact they were on the kiss cam being roasted for a solid 5 minutes for being so phone fixated.

Yes, it’s true, sometimes what is on our phone can seem more exciting than what is happening in real life, but when you stop giving real life as much attention as your phone life, some really crazy and tragic stuff can occur.

Loneliness

It is postulated that people today are more lonely and less social than in past generations. Cigna health did a study on 20,000 Americans that concluded 1 in 5 people today say they have no one to talk to, and to many peoples surprise, the more technology “connected” generations reported more loneliness than their less tech savvy counterparts.

The study reveals “Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) and Millennials (adults ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.” They continue to explain that “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.” Combat that with the fact one in six Americans today are on a psych medication at some point in our life and we have a big health concern on our hands.

So how much of this “loneliness” is due to technology and how much is due to the shifts in our daily lives and luxuries? While many are quick to point the finger at technology for making us separated from our peers, it is also the way in which we choose to interact with each other. So often we rely on technology and use it as a shield, to protect us from the outside world and to prevent us from looking “uncool.”

Unlike other generations who had to worry about war or the great depression, the more technology savvy generations have the luxury (or disadvantage) of more alone time, infinite entertainment on demand 24/7, and being able to opt out of socially uncomfortable situations since we can get whatever we want without leaving the house. What’s more, many of these new technologies come with a price tag. As a result, often people need to make more money to afford these luxuries and end up working more to pay for “conveniences and free times” which ends up not giving them free time.

Before the dating apps you either had to overcome your fear of rejection and approach that cute girl or guy at the party or you would be single forever, so people overcame their fears. Today we don’t HAVE to overcome these types of fears cause technology gives us an out. Thus, it is up to us to make the decision to push ourselves outside our comfort zones more often.

I once watched a guy go up to a girl at the bar and ask for her number, and nothing outside the norm there, but what happened after that I’ll never forget. The guy and girl stood side by side, sending flirty texts and emoji’s back and forth for a solid 5 mins before looking up at each other, smiling, and parting ways. YES it was loud in the bar, but come on, isn’t that an excuse to lean in and whisper to the person? Was the lag time of texting really needed in that situation?

Antisocial

Again technology is simply a tool, just because texting is an option, doesn’t mean we always have to take it. If you are feeling lonely or tired of typing, try calling a friend instead of texting them, or better yet, get in the car and go visit them.

Remember that study on loneliness we talked about? The study also found “those who are less lonely are more likely to have regular in-person interactions, are in good overall physical and mental health, have found a balance in their daily activities, and are employed.” With more people than ever working from home or in cubicles and ordering everything from groceries to cloths online, the less people are needing to interact with others and the higher the risk for being lonely.

The more you get in the habit of making time to see friends and loved ones, the more connected you will begin to feel. Humans need connection with others and a sense of community to thrive. If you are new in a city or have a hard time making friends, join an organization or sport so that you have something to look forward to and can meet people in a low-pressure environment.

There are opportunities every day to connect with people IRL (in real life) if you are open to it. The next time you are at a coffee shop or walking down the street, look up from your phone and try smiling at the next friendly face you see. Not only will this create a possible opportunity to meet a new person, but it prevents you from walking into a tree. I actually had a patient come into the clinic a few months ago with a shard of branch penetrating his eardrum from walking and texting right into a bush.

You may feel nervous going outside of your comfort zone at first, but tell your brain that taking a chance and facing a momentary rejection is a much smaller pain than the pain of not taking a chance and being lonely. Putting yourself out there and making a new friend or finding a new partner has the potential to bring you so much more happiness than sitting at home wondering “what if” or making more digital and social media friends. Having a network of people you can count on is one of the most critical aspects of living a happy and fulfilling life.

Also, the next time you are out with friends and there is a lag in the conversation, don’t reach for your phone as this is actually a very special time for your brain. That moment when silence fills the air and people start to feel uncomfortable is when your brain will kick into higher level critical and imaginative thinking mode to pull out of the next topic of conversation. Let your brain work, stop grabbing your phone and making your brain lazy.

Another reason not to pull out your phone during those moments of silence is to form an increased connection with the person you are with. While it may feel weird at first to sit in silence, if you just settle into it, take a few breaths, and look around to admire your surroundings, you will notice the awkwardness will fade and a new sense will come in; companionship and connection.

The Social Media Effect

Social media gives you the ability to share information, raise awareness, connect with millions of people, keep in touch with friends and family, and even to re-connect with that ex-husband from kindergarten who you haven’t spoken to in 15 years.

However, with the addition of features such as the “like” button, social media has also become a tool for self-promotion, popularity tracking, and superficiality contests. Most disheartening are the countless studies that show 50-70% of people are more depressed and feel worse about their lives after going on a social media site.

We all have been there, lying in bed at 2am with our laptop next to us like a warm puppy, scrolling social media and looking at how happy everyone seems, how accomplished they are, how their partner seems more loving, etc… till you drip ice cream on your keyboard and have to make the call to grab a tissue or wipe it off with your t-shit. And just when you are starting to feel really depressed about your life, you get distracted by a “what kind of cheese are you?” quiz or a video on “the best falls of all time” and suddenly all is right in the world again. #ADDisablessingandacurse

One of my favorite quotes poking fun at social media goes “I wish my life was as awesome as social media makes it seem.”

Of course, that was not the goal of social media, the goal was to connect people and inspire each other. So why does social media make so many of us feel depressed or anxious instead of uplifted and excited? One word: comparison.

With the addition of social media to our modern day lives, we have more comparison taking place than ever before. Up to the early 2000’s our comparison radius was limited to those around us and those on television or in the media. Now we are exposed to millions of people, who are just like us, and nothing like us, doing amazing, funny, or downright outrageous things.

If we believe the saying “comparison is the root of all unhappiness” then we need to be more aware than ever since we are at the highest risk for the negative effects of comparison than in any other period of time. One way to combat this risk is to remind yourself that everyone is different and has their own path, goals, and dreams.

While there really is no “positive comparison,” as we shouldn’t ever be comparing ourselves to others, we can looks to others for motivation. Let’s call this “possibility motivation.” This is the feeling of excitement that occurs when you witness someone doing something amazing and think to yourself, heck yeah, if they can do it, I can do it, sign me up! Possibility motivation is watching other people accomplishing remarkable goals and being inspired by the fact that something so cool is even possible. Be it the guy who went from being a broke waiter to founding a major company or the shy kid in class who is now a famous you-tuber or even that dude who decided to sky dive…from, like…space! Looking at other peoples lives does not need to be negative if you can stay true to your own wants, desires, and ways in which you will accomplish your goals.

Unhealthy comparison is when you observe someone doing something positive or exciting and feel jealous that you are not doing as well as them or seeing them as having something you want. This type of comparison is harmful to your psyche and reduces motivation levels. You may find yourself thinking that you can never be as successful as that person or have a house like theirs, but you make these judgments without knowing what that person did to get there or how they feel inside now.

With the rise of self-made stars and starters in the media, both comparison and inspiration are exaggerated. On the one hand, social media gave birth to the realization that with enough work anything is possible because you no longer need agencies approval to get a following. You now can reach the masses on your own.

On the other hand, it took away our excuse for why we can’t do something. So you can either feel excited that there are more helpful recourses than ever before to assist you in reaching your goals or you can feel doubly guilty for not going after your dreams. This is a prime example of making a technology, which by itself is neither good or bad, but simply a product, into something positive or negative.

How to stop negative comparison

The first step to beat comparison deflation is to ensure that your goals and desires are coming from you and have longevity. It is easy to see someone else’s life and feel envy, but if your goals are different than theirs this comparison is not productive or realistic.

If you are an astrophysicist working on making jet propulsion engines, then comparing your life to your travel blogger/ Instagram famous friend who has been circling the world for the past year would not make much sense. The goal of your life path is very different than that of your friends.

One of the keys to stopping comparison is looking at the path you are on and remember why you are on it not another one. We only have so much time on this earth so we must prioritize what is most important to us.

If your love is math and are excited by the idea of creating a new and improved engine, then you should stick to that path for as long as it serves you and brings you joy. If you are only in math because your parents made you and deep down you really want to travel the world or be a teacher, then perhaps its time to change paths. But look at the reality of the life you are pining over. Your friend maybe traveling the world, but they may also be staying in crowded hostiles to do so and taking 300 photos a day to get that one shot for Instagram. Maybe the comfort of your own bed, having a steady income, and the mental stimulation of your career is more enjoyable, but maybe its not, just remember everyone is on their own journey and has their own struggles and joys.

Online Dating

Online dating, has had a tremendous impact on the way we meet potential partners, but people are very divided as to whether this is a good or bad change.

The pro-online dating camp: Access is everything, now you can search for people from home, in the comfort of your pjs, without needing to go to a bar AND it allows you to meet people outside of your network who you probably would not have met otherwise. Also, now you don’t have to face rejection in person.

The anti-online dating camp: Dating in America has been stripped of romance and become the “fast food” version of what it used to be. Apps provide “ass on demand” and unlimited options that are leading to “partner fomo” (fear of missing out), which is causing more breakups and cheating. Also, they aren’t that effective as its hard to tell chemistry from a photo so you may miss out on people who you would have liked if you met in person. Or, vice versa, may find yourself stuck at dinner with a person you would have known you weren’t into immediately had you met in person.

I think at the end of the day, dating apps are just another tool sitting in your back pocket and are what you make them. If you like the idea of swiping faces online as opposed to approaching faces in real life, then do your thing!

As a medical professional this is now the moment where I do need to get on my soapbox about one thing, STDs. I know, I know, just read it, this part is important…

Thanks to dating app culture and practically nonexistent sexual education in school, STDs are now the highest they have ever been in US history. Not only that, but STDs are coming out with new features like drug resistance, meaning that they are now able to overpower the antibiotics we use to cure them. You should ALWAYS get new partners tested and wear condoms until you are in a stable relationship with one person.

In addition, HPV, which is linked to cervical cancer in women and throat cancer in men is spreading faster than frosting on a cake at a bake-off. While there is a HPV vaccine, there are still cases of people getting the virus even after being vaccinated. In addition, the test we use for screenings, which is only effective for women, does not show all the stains of HPV so you can still have an infection even if tested negative. Please be safe out there.

Screen Time

Too much screen time, meaning too much time on the phone, computer, laptop, table, video game consul, etc, is leading to a slew of health problems. Chronic dry eye, eye strain, carpel tunnel, overstimulation, decreased attention spans, brain atrophy, and sleep disorders. There are now even rehabilitation programs for people who are addicted to gaming or the internet.

The 2014 Nielsen report found that on average adults are on the screen for 11 hours per day and kids spend an average of 6.5-8 hours per day. The debate is still going on for how much screen time is “too much,” but pretty much all doctors and psychologists agree that for best mental health you should not use your devices 1-2 hour before bed and wait an hour after waking up to log on.

Intellect and Attention Spans

To debate if technology is making us dumber we also have to take a look at the education system today. With changes in technology the way we learn will need to change also, but what does that look like or mean?

Remember when Miss Cheryl from math class would tell you the test was no calculator, because “you won’t be walking around with a calculator in real life?” Well… Or the classic dad joke “let me just pull out my brain” while reaching for the cell phone, that depicts the drastic changes in how we access and use information.

Let’s face it, very few of us remember the historical facts we were required to memorize for school. Most people will not remember what year the Boston Tea Party took place, but they will remember why it occurred and the aftermath. While we don’t need to remember the exact year that events took place, it is helpful to have a sense of history as history often repeats itself and it’s important to track what has/has not worked in the past to better understand political motives and future plans. I think we can all agree that the morals of the story and lessons we extract, not the trivia facts, hold the most value.

As parts of our brains (the part use to memorize facts- and possibly, with AI, the part we use to think) are being supported by technology, critical and conceptual thinking is becoming even more important.

What is concerning about technology and learning is not so much that people are memorizing less, but that their attention spans and ability to learn new concepts are becoming reduced. This does not pertain to everyone, but is certainly becoming an issue, especially in children who are exposed to digital overstimulation during developmental years.

Kids today don’t ever need to be bored, they always have something to entertain them, be it the TV or the mobile device, but fantasy and play are so important in child development. While gaming may be good for motor development and critical thinking, its play and reading that allows for imagination and abstract thinking.

It’s been studied that children today have a much harder time sitting still to read a book than ever before. The biggest problem with this is when you are getting all your information in short segments it becomes more difficult to understand concepts. So they are learning the fragments, but missing the big picture that ties all those short ideas together.

Technology can also greatly improve our intelligence by giving us access to more information we ever thought possible. We literally have libraries and teachers in our pockets, saving us tremendous time. However, knowing how to sort through this information and what to trust can be a challenge as many of the resources out there are not credible.

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