Digital Detriments

It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced and photoshopped world very dangerous.

Brené Brown

Whilst technologies such as the internet and smartphones have revolutionised the efficiency of day-to-day life, they have slowly but surely contributed to a decline in the human psyche; both cognitively and psychologically. The points we will be touching on in this article are not to strictly forbid technology but in fact, to point out some common pitfalls the modern individual makes when becoming consumed by the technological deity, the internet. Before we begin this journey, I would like to introduce you to two relatively new terms within the healthcare environment; digital depression and digital dementia. These are two damaging insights into the future of human health and the effects that our exterior worlds may be having on our longevity and wellbeing.

Matt Haig sums the modern world up well in his excellent book ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ when he states “we are more connected than ever before, but we are also more alone than ever before”. Whilst we can connect with people from every corner of the world online, it is discouraging human social interaction and we could all probably live a life whereby we don’t need to leave the house; such is the life of convenience we live nowadays. Whilst the efficiency and convenience are great, it does of course come with its downfalls, not least the lack of physical activity occurring within this lifestyle. The focus here is going to be mental health though. One of the most conflicting parts of the internet is that people use it as an escape to avoid negative emotions such as anxiety and depression (Hoge, Bickham, Cantor, 2017) however there are strong links to suggest that overuse of technology as an ‘escapism’ can increase an individual’s susceptibility to mental health conditions. The reason being is that we are losing the ability of emotional intelligence* and this behavioural avoidance is reaping havoc on our emotional and social skills within day-to-day life. Similarly, feelings of loneliness and rejection are most definitely experienced through the medium of the internet and studies have shown that these social wounds activate the same part of the brain as physical pain would.

There is also the small matter of creating greater ‘connections’ online via social media platforms and utilising these as our primary force of friendship and identity. This of course can lead to real social isolation when this false reality comes to a potential standstill and can leave some people in a state of loneliness. Loneliness has shown to increase an individual’s early mortality by up to 14% and can even be likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Of course, when discussing the internet and mental health, we need to put some real focus into social media which is what we will end on here. What do we tend to see on social media platforms? We see the perfect life, that ideal, the most amazing couple on the most amazing beach. We forget that they might have horrendously sunburnt backs, mosquito-bitten legs, and had an argument two minutes before the photo was taken because we become lost in that one still shot, painting the Idyllic life. What this leads us to do is compare some of our worst insides with other people’s outsides and this unfortunately, is a battle which not too many of us are going to win. It can strip away the layers of gratitude we have in our life and make us feel like we are missing something in our lives. We start to crave happiness vicariously through someone else by judging what makes them seemingly content.

Moving on to digital dementia; a worrying sounding term, right? When we identify that dementia is the biggest killer currently in the UK, we know we should be slightly concerned when we hear the word digital attached to that. The term digital dementia was coined by neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer and it refers to ‘the breakdown of cognitive abilities due to an overuse of digital technology’. Some common symptoms of dementia involve confusion, delusions, disorientation, and most notably memory loss. At first look, you can probably already start to realise how the digital world can exacerbate these symptoms and lead to the brain deteriorating somewhat. The brain is like any other muscle in the sense of ‘use it or lose it’. Some major examples of our reliance on technology to do our cognitive jobs for us are Satnavs which direct us step by step to whatever destination we desire without having to plan ahead or memorise routes. Calculators are accessible at the touch of a button on most modern smartphones and interestingly, most of our passwords are now stored at the tip of our thumb and payments can be made with the touch of a card, all removing the need to remember obscure combinations. A common error witnessed day-to-day is that when we struggle to remember something, be it the name of a song that is on the radio, a film, an actor, a book, even a particular day we might have had with loved ones; can all be found online through search engines or our social media memories. This means that as soon as we have any strain on our brain, we give in and turn to technology but this is the equivalent of going for a run or to the gym and barely breaking sweat. The brain starts to believe that its long term function is required less and less, thus degrading its ability.

So how can we start to prevent falling into these detrimental digital behaviours? First and foremost, start to limit the amount of screen time you have each day. A lot of us spend most of our working days communicating behind a screen therefore make the most of the time where you do not have to be at a screen. Get back to the basics and make time for your hobbies which involve interacting with real life. Sometimes we finish a day at work and feel fatigued and we mistake this for physical fatigue whereas it is actually mental fatigue in a lot of cases. This creates a barrier for some individuals in that physical activity is neglected. Breakthrough that barrier and utilise the time after work for yourself and your own mental and physical wellbeing. Think about what is important to you in regards to meaningful relationships and how we spend our time. In a lot of cases, television and social medias give us our dopamine hits which reinforce that sense of comfort and happiness but the reality is that they can be quite a negative coping mechanism for stress. Whilst they may well reduce stress short term, the long-term impacts of neglecting positive coping strategies such as exercise, good nutrition, good sleeping patterns, socialising and taking time out (mindfulness) will all increase your health from a holistic standpoint and go some way to warding off the digital forms of depression and dementia.

*Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth. (Goleman, 1995).