The public has often feared new technologies and their impact on society as was the case with television, video games, smart phones, and social media. Are these fears warranted and substantiated with data that indicates any negative correlation between technology use and mental health?
A 2016 study of college-age students found that misuse or addiction of technology, but not standard use, was associated with a decline in mental health, particularly relating to anxiety and depression. A 2017 study of 254 college students found that those who were addicted to the internet had abnormally high levels of anxiety and struggled to control their impulses and plan their time effectively.
These studies could not determine whether those with anxiety were more prone to develop an internet addiction or whether an internet addiction can lead to changes in the brain that result in anxiety. However, these results demonstrate a need to reflect internally on our technology use and if it’s getting out of hand.
How overusing technology can lead to anxiety or contribute to existing anxiety
To understand technology’s impact on anxiety, it can be helpful to look at the way the human brain is wired. Anxiety is a natural response to the brain’s “Fight or Flight” trigger. This trigger originally helped keep our ancestors alive when massive threats such as predators were present. This natural instinct remains in humans but it has evolved as we have alleviated many of the threats our ancestors faced.
Today, our flight or fight response can be triggered by issues like money problems, health, relationships struggles, or career worries. Individuals struggling with an anxiety disorder usually experience recurring, intrusive thoughts or worries about perceived threats that aren’t proportionate to the actual threats, and excessive technology use can exacerbate this problem.
In the digital era, smartphones, laptops, tablets, and beyond seem to have become an extension of our person, they allow us to be connected and in-the-know at all times with the push of a button. But the convenience of instant information comes at the cost of individuals being prisoners of the constant pings, alerts, and notifications when they are unable to ignore the stream of new information.
Excessive internet use causes our brain to expect constant stimulation. In essence, the more we scroll the internet, the more our brain craves the hit of dopamine we receive from it. Eventually, more internet use is required for our brain to receive the same dopamine reaction it’s used to.
This can cause or worsen anxiety if we think back to how our brain responds to perceived threats. If an individual is worried about a health concern for example, they could turn to the internet scanning and searching for any information they can acquire to keep their anxiety at bay. However, the brain has adapted to expect a constant flow of information, so no amount of internet research will satisfy the anxiety, and individuals can find themselves caught in a spiral known as doomscrolling.
Excessive technology use has also been shown to eliminate a great deal of uncertainty. As uncertainty is the driving force behind anxiety, this would seem like a good thing. However, because technology has reduced our experiences with handling uncertainty, we are actually less prepared to deal with it when it arises, increasing the intensity of anxious episodes.
Beyond incessant online researching of information, social media also presents an interesting challenge regarding anxiety. On the surface it would seem it’s easier to interact with friends, acquaintances, and coworkers on social media platforms where you can present what you want and think, rethink, and edit what you post.
But social media has become a way to compare your success to others from the amount of likes and comments you receive to a “keeping up with the Joneses” vibe to see who is living the most interesting lives. Research indicates this can create an extreme amount of anxiety in teens and young adults who are still grappling with their identities as they worry about being judged as somehow deficient. The desire to curate a perfect social media presence further increases anxiety as the gap between what we project and who we actually are is widened.
Internet addiction can manifest in many forms and can have far-reaching impacts alongside anxiety.
Types of internet addiction platforms and their impacts
Internet addiction is currently classified by mental health professionals as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that results in an urge to engage in ritualistic thoughts and behaviors. Beyond anxiety, those suffering from internet addictions may experience sleeping problems, isolation from friends and family, depression, and an inability to focus on work. Within internet addiction, researchers cite five subcategories of technology addiction: Net Compulsion, Cybersex Addiction, Cyber Relationship Addiction, Compulsive Information Seeking, and Gaming Addiction.
Net Compulsions concern online activities that can be harmful to individuals, particularly financially. These activities include online gambling, trading stocks, online auctions, or compulsive online shopping. In addition to these activities having a detrimental impact on finances, they can also disrupt a person’s ability to do their job effectively and create stress in relationships.
Cybersex Addiction relates to any sexual content that is available through technology including pornography, sexual fantasy chat rooms, and web-cam services. This type of addiction can harm an individual’s ability to form real-world intimate and sexual relationships.
Cyber Relationship Addiction refers to an addiction to finding and maintaining online connections and relationships often at the expense of real-life family and friends. These relationships can typically start in chat rooms or from direct messaging on social media platforms. A dependence on these online relationships can harm an individual’s social skills as well as hinder their confidence in making real-world connections.
Compulsive Information Seeking is a common type of addiction for those with anxiety who are trying to use information to quell anxious episodes. The opportunity to find information so easily manifests in an uncontrollable urge to gather as much information as possible. This type of addiction can reduce work productivity, possibly leading to termination, and could benefit from a range of treatments such as therapy and medication.
Lastly, Gaming addiction refers to a compulsion to play online and offline games with a computer. Gaming addictions can be in the form of individual or multiplayer games and will come at the expense of work productivity and interactions with real-life friends and family. Regardless of the type of technology addiction you are struggling with, there are many strategies you can use to help overcome your addiction.
Strategies for overcoming technology addiction
Just as you might control a sugar addiction by training yourself to eat less sugar, you can train yourself to become less dependent on technology over time. The first step in this training is recognizing all the ways your phone or computer tries to keep you consistently engaged, such as push notifications. When your phone is always alerting you to new emails, texts, and notifications it’s easy to get pulled into every new piece of information.
You can mitigate this effect by shutting off all notifications to your phone and only engaging with emails, texts, and social media during scheduled periods. These intentionally planned tech periods will allow you to focus on important tasks without interruptions.
Another possible intervention is implementing yoga and meditation into your daily life. A 2017 study found them to be complementary therapies that ease the symptoms of technology addiction such as anxiety, stress, poor concentration, insomnia, and depression. Yoga promotes relaxation by helping individuals achieve a lower breathing rate, focusing on the present, and increasing serotonin levels. Meditation or mindfulness help to improve self-regulation and impulse control, which is needed for treating technology addiction.
If you need a more intense break from technology, consider shutting down all social media accounts to focus on stronger face-to-face connections with people. When you are spending in-person time with friends and family, implement no-technology zones which will force everyone to instead pay attention to deepening real life connections.
If you need help breaking your technology addiction, a wilderness therapy program, like Momentum, can help. Wilderness therapy programs allow you to completely disconnect and spend time in nature developing greater self-awareness surrounding your anxiety. Free from the distractions of everyday life, these programs allow you to challenge unhelpful assumptions and replace them with empowering beliefs.
Momentum also understands that reconnection will happen once students transition back home, so the program includes ways to help young adults monitor their internet engagement as well as offering therapeutic strategies to cope with distressing content.
Momentum can help
Momentum is an adventure-based wilderness therapy program that offers 18-25 year olds a pathway to successfully transition into adulthood. We provide the people, place, and experiences that allow young adults to gain insight, practice healthy independence, realign goals, and learn new tools needed for adulthood.
We offer exciting adventure programming, comprehensive clinical services, engaging academic seminars and social interactions with peers to create life-changing opportunities. Our students will face new challenges, build self esteem and confidence, and create momentum that carries them toward their passions. For more information, please call (828) 457-8576.