A key reason that humans have evolved and survived as a species is through connection with each other. If you were part of a family group, a tribe, a community, you had a decent chance of at least surviving, and often of thriving; whilst being driven out of the tribe or community, being alone, meant almost certain death.
From an evolutionary point of view therefore, our brains became wired to connect with others and it has also primed us with a deep instinctive fear of disconnection, of rejection by the modern equivalent of our tribe. Social media has tapped brilliantly into this primeval survival need, exploiting how good it feels to be connected, and how terrifying it is to feel we are being rejected or missing out.
Technology has us dancing to its tunes
Recently, through observation and from issues being brought by clients, I have become more aware of and concerned about the impact technology is having on us.
It was one thing when we had to leave our computers on a desk to go somewhere, completely another when they are in our pocket or hand the whole day. It can feel as if we are never alone; Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whats App, Tinder and now this deluge of other apps and notifications, reaching out to us enticingly the whole time. Every ring and beep of multiple devices triggers our neurobiological urge to respond, look, check immediately, tweaking that fear of missing out or rejection. Technology and social media can create a sort of mania in us; it leaves no space, no gaps, no time for privacy, no time to stand and stare, no capacity for other things. For those who are socially anxious anyway, it can be overwhelming.
Wherever I go, it seems that more and more people are rushing around glued to their phones. If I sit in a coffee shop, many people have their phones out, even when in conversation, others sitting opposite each other, but engrossed in their Internet worlds. The teens and younger adults in particular (although I’m afraid it’s catching to the older generations too) are doing this constantly everywhere. Communication is about being attuned to the other person; when you are checking your phone every few moments, your attention is elsewhere and you are quite unable to be present in the conversation. For the person trying to talk to you it is extremely distracting and for many, feels rude.
The benefits and skills of real human contact are being lost
Notice how increasingly we communicate via a text message, a virtual interaction. New research found that 31% of smartphone users don’t make a normal phone-call during a given week. Texting is so much easier, it avoids possible conflict and saves time, but it means we are increasingly losing the warmth and meaning of personal contact, losing the skills of meaningful person-to-person communication. People can spend hours alone each day, but with the illusion of human interaction. This doesn’t nourish like the connection of eyes, touch, the subtle nuances of body language, real human to human encounters, the glue that bonds us is missing.
We’re caught up in constant stimulation that leaves us wired and exhausted
Technology generates a constant stream of thoughts, vacillating emotions, a cacophony of sound, a blur of images, it sucks us into virtual worlds, it fills our minds with all sorts of distraction and stimulation, it rings, beeps and pings constantly to catch our attention, it never gives us a moments’ peace, whether day or night. Our orientation response is firing constantly and we become wired and addicted to the sounds of our phones, or the excitement of video games. For instance half of 18-24 year olds check their phones in the middle of the night. It is exhausting for both mind and body.
Our Emotional Needs are not being Met
All this is very bad for us. In order for us to enjoy good mental health, we need to have our emotional needs met in balance. These include a need for intimacy and connection, community, the giving and receiving of attention. This, amounts to regular, quality, human connection and interaction, the illusion of virtual communication is simply not good enough.
Connecting with others is important, but life is about balance and we also have another important emotional need for space and privacy. People with hectic lives, never mind those suffering with anxiety or depression, have a lot of noise/chatter going on in their heads. When you add to this the insistent siren calls of emails, social media, and constant notifications, and it is a toxic mix that can feel quite overwhelming. None of this is good for our mental health.
Social Media is causing many of our children to become anxious and unhappy
The NSPCC have reported a dramatic 14% increase, over 2 years, in children being admitted to hospital for self-harm. Teens aged 13-17 are the ones most at risk. Sexting, pornography, and opportunities for bullying and betrayal, are just some of the key issues they face. The report confirms that these young people are struggling to cope with the pressures of modern day life, and that it is social media, which is helping to fuel a nation of “deeply unhappy” children.
Without capacity, our minds are overwhelmed
We need capacity in our minds to function effectively. We need privacy and space to relax, to clear our head, process things, re-gain perspective. To build that capacity we need privacy, silence, and calm spaces. Privacy and space are necessary to give us time to process things properly, to keep ourselves grounded, to reconnect with ourselves, nourish our souls. It’s no coincidence that there is a huge growth in activities like yoga and mindfulness, that give us the discipline of bringing these precious things back into our lives. We need positive activities in our lives that give us that space, (with phones turned off of course!); things like gardening, walking in nature, reading a good book, a relaxing bath. These are all simple ways to nurture our souls.
We need good quality sleep every night to wake up refreshed and motivated
It is also essential that we get a good night’s sleep in order to refresh, repair, recalibrate, replenish and nourish our mind and body. Going to bed wired and buzzing from an evening of smartphone apps firing off our orientation response and with one ear alert for the next notification, actively prevents healthy deep sleep. This means we wake up exhausted and without the energy or motivation to do the things that bring pleasure and meaning into our lives.
To have good mental health, we must learn to have technology free Zones
As a therapist, it is becoming increasingly clear that the intrusive nature of technology is starting to have a massive negative impact on our mental health. I see the impact on clients suffering with anxiety conditions particularly.
All aspects of life need to be managed and mental health is no exception. We must therefore be aware of distraction frenzy, the seductive and addictive dangers of technology and particularly the risks of social media. We need to notice the amount of time we spend on it, and ensure that we make time, not just to maintain real, focused human connections, but also for ourselves. Crucially we must also observe good sleep hygiene. This means developing the capacity and self-discipline to turn our devices off when it is appropriate.
A good therapist can help people learn to make these important separations and to get emotional needs met in balance.