Solving Technology or Smartphone Addiction and Protecting your Mental Health

Mental Health Risks of Technology Overuse: If Not Now, When?

Oh, don’t worry — it’s only a lockdown where in stead of 50% of your waking time you’re now going to be living your life through digital screens 80 or 90% of the time. You’ll be fine.

In this series of articles, I share some of the insights I gathered in writing my book ‘Life Beyond the Touch Screen’. Then I’ll share some further insights into addiction and addictive technology — and, perhaps more importantly:

I’ll share the — scientifically sound and research-backed — steps I took, and the steps I advise anybody to take to combat smartphone or tech addiction and to maintain, protect and even promote your mental health.

  • In the first article, we were searching for a broader and deeper understanding of the problem at hand, looking at definitions and causes for digital technology overuse or addiction.

In this article we’ll be looking into a question that’s at the center of the problem: 

How big is the problem with technology overuse, really?

What are the mental health effects and risks of technology addiction or overuse?

Let’s continue on the premise that “addiction”, assuming we can come to a (scientific) consensus at some point as to what would constitute that, is the worst level of negative impact tech can have on an individual human being.

In this article about the science and statistics on smartphone addiction we also focus on the positive effects of device usage. But what are the general negative impacts or risks of digital device usage on the individual, that we can say are supported by research?

How to End Social Media Addiction —

Negative impact of technology dependence on the individual level

Here are a few of the many available studies documenting the negative effects of technology dependence on our mental health:

  • Anxiety and Confusion
    A study from MIT found that students who were asked to give up their phones for just 24 hours suffered from anxiety and confusion without their mobiles.
  • Withdrawal symptoms
    A study from the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication that found that some young people suffered from withdrawal symptoms (like increased blood pressure and heart rate) when separated from their phones.
  • Increase of suicide rates in young people
    A study that linked the increase of suicide rates in young people to an increase in the use of social media and mobile phones. The correlation was evident, although causation was not shown in this study. In the article, a fair case is made to accept the possibility of causation (more use of social media -> higher suicide rates) at face level, however.
  • Technology Usage and Brain Chemistry: Differences in brain structure, neurotransmitters and brain function*
    If you prefer something a little more concrete, a study presented at the Radiological Society of North America conference found differences in brain structure and brain function (including different levels of chemicals in the brain) in teens who were thought to be addicted to smartphones (and corresponding “normalization” of brain structure and function after these teens went through treatment).

*Differences, not necessarily negative differences. The point here, being: we should know if — and if so how and to what extent — our brains are being impacted on a physical level.

BankMyCell did a great job of analyzing a compilation of a fair amount of studies. In the infographic they share here, they show some of the highlights.

From BankMyCell: “All the studies and research data we examined at BankMyCell found that dependency on smartphones does have a real impact on mental and physical health.”

Negative impact of technology on the societal level

Harder to research and substantially prove is the positive or negative effect of digital technology usage on the societal level.

What we can say is that these technologies — specifically social media and search/advertising technologies — have most probably facilitated the further political polarization in many societies worldwide, and the proliferation of fake news. Connected to these are the use of digital technology for unethical persuasion in the political and business arenas.

It’s also reasonable to say that social media and Big Tech in general have played a role in the incitement of violence and even ethnic cleansing in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar and other cases. Watch the above video for more insights.

Finally, the way that technological capabilities and the ownership of tech companies are distributed across the world, exacerbates already rising levels of inequality across and within societies.

All of these can logically be expected to exacerbate the negative effects on the individual levels, much rather than soften them.

Digital technology: mental health effects and side effects

As you can see, there is ample evidence that technology overuse can have impressive, negative effects on our mental health. Technology overuse and smartphone addiction have been proven in various studies to be linked to burnouts, depression, loneliness, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts and behavior, at least for teens in the United States.

A causal link is generally difficult to prove, but at least in one study among 143 students at the University of Pennsylvania, social media were proven to have a causative effect on depression and feelings of loneliness.

  • Find a more extensive summary of research findings here.

We can all but equate smartphone addiction to social media addiction; most of our usage of our devices comes from the usage of social media, as mentioned before, and most of that usage goes to the five major ones being Facebook (& FB Messenger), Youtube, Whatsapp, Instagram (and TikTok) in the West.

Biggest social media platforms by usage — Statista, october 2020

By now, by and large, the negative effects of technology overuse on our mental health and psychological wellbeing are fairly well established. There is a reasonable consensus among scientists and other experts in the field that we need to curb our usage of these devices and apps — even in the face of the earlier mentioned issues in defining a pathology.

Does that mean digital technology in general, and social media specifically, are evil? The technology in and of itself is, of course, neutral.

Choose, Raise Awareness, and Next Steps

The problem, as the Architect reminds Neo in The Matrix, is choice.

How do we choose to have our new and rapidly evolving tools and capabilities impact our lives as individuals, organizations and as a global society? Combating the effects of truly dangerous amounts of digital technology usage, or simply using technology more than is truly beneficial to our lives, starts right there — with making a conscious choice.

In the next article in this series, we’ll be looking at what a conscious choice might look like — by taking the first two steps of solving Technology Addiction. We’ll first focus on raising our awareness, and second on assessing if we ourselves are indeed at risk of developing a problematic relationship with technology by taking one of multiple available tests.

My book “Life Beyond the Touch Screen” is available here as an e-book or paperback. It’s a meditational booklet designed to increase our consciousness around the impact of digital technology on our lives as individuals, in organizations and society. A reminder to choose. Take back your energy, focus, and time: get your copy now.

For a limited offer use code MentalHealthFocus2020 on my website for a 15% discount on all items.

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