If like me, you rely on the internet for work, information, leisure, making social plans, shopping (the list gets embarrassingly long, so I’ll cut it there!), it can feel like a pretty great thing. The internet and the digital devices it’s brought with it have changed the world – in many ways for the better. However, nothing is without its fallbacks. The digital revolution has brought many unforeseen problems in its wake. Many people are linking the sudden, global upsurge in depression and anxiety with the rapid worldwide spread of digital devices. While nothing is as yet proven, the evidence to suggest that the use of digital devices – particularly concerning social media – can cause anxiety in susceptible individuals.
Let’s start with the most ‘pathological’ pattern of internet usage. The concept of ‘internet addiction’ is well established in Japan, China, and Korea, but remains debated in the West. However, we are increasingly coming to understand that patterns of excessive internet usage can provoke reactions resembling (if not functionally identical to) the reactions of an addict to their preferred substance. Needless to say, addiction brings with it a lot of associated psychiatric troubles – including an enhanced capacity for anxiety. If we are indeed addicted to our digital devices, it’s hardly surprising that we’re experiencing anxiety as a side-effect of the addiction-based dopamine surges and withdrawals within our brains. The trouble is, our reliance on our digital devices is so intense that excessive use is normalized, and behaviors have to become seriously extreme before we realize that there is a problem. Indeed, many people are far more protective of their digital devices than they are of their cars, their homes, or even their bank accounts. Increasingly, people’s digital lives are so important to them that they ask to be buried with their smartphones – and that’s considered normal!
Loss Of Downtime
Moving onto more lifestyle-based factors, many have noted that the internet has chipped away at our downtime so insidiously that we’ve barely noticed it happening. Indeed, it’s more or less destroyed the boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘leisure time.’ Many of us have a social media or magazine tab open while we work, and take guilty pleasure in updating our Facebook during work hours. However, the flip side of being able to reach your at-leisure life while you’re at work is that work can also reach you during your leisure time. No longer do office hours finish when we go home. Emails can reach us any time of the day or night, and many of us are asked to take work home, to research, or to complete and send via the internet. True downtime – where we’re completely disconnected from our working lives – is a thing of the past. Even when we are using the internet purely for ‘leisure,’ our brains still have to work pretty hard to keep up with the gallons of information we’re pouring into it from a thousand different sources. Furthermore, the constant connectedness of the digital world makes us feel obliged to immediately answer any message – which instantly re-engages even a very relaxed brain. All of this is bad because our brains need to go into ‘rest mode’ to process our experiences and ‘sort out’ the psyche. Without giving our brains a bit of a break (i.e. concentrating purely on one, pleasurable thing – reading a book, meditating, going for a walk, dozing etc), our brains never have a chance to file things away to long-term memory, heal emotional wounds, sweep away stress, and let all of our worries seep into the substratum of our consciousness, there to be harmlessly dispelled. Psychological ‘clutter’ thus piles up in the psyche and manifests as depression and anxiety.
Then there’s the ever-present problem with social media. Scientists have various ideas about social media and how it can be bad/good for us. Trolls upset us, anonymity brings out the worst in us, we become more invested in our online than our real lives, the list goes on. However, there’s one theme which emerges pretty consistently: that of pressure. The lives we portray on social media are our highlight reels – they’re bolder, more dramatic, prettier, and far less humdrum than our real lives. Which is fine, if you realize that everyone is essentially ‘photoshopping’ their social media persona. Sometimes, however, scrolling down everyone’s beautiful, funny, successful feeds can make us feel intense pressure to live up to these unreal standards. We don’t know that the person who always has hilarious statuses spends hours thinking up her next quip. We don’t know that ‘casual,’ gorgeous selfie was re-taken fifteen times and then heavily edited. We don’t know that those perfect, smiling children were screaming monsters five minutes before the photo was taken. All we see is a stream of apparently faultless lives, which our lives cannot possibly match. Which makes us feel inadequate, knocks our self-esteem, and gives us anxiety.
Helen Fields is a freelance writer and mother. She juggles her work around her home life. In the past, she has suffered anxiety problems and now seeks to help others through writing about these issues and what life is like managing these kinds of problems.