By Mason Mohon | USA
Welcome to the glorious new world. We have an absurd amount of computer processing power and information in our pockets, at all times. We all carry around our phones with us all the time, constantly checking and looking for new information. The information age is kind of great. I can pull out my phone and text my friend in Sweden, look up an academic paper, or watch whatever episode of The Office that my heart desires. What isn’t to love?
Studies show that there isn’t much not to love. As The Economist recently reported, teens are backing off from what is usually considered “bad behavior.” That is, we are consuming fewer drugs, having less procreative sex, and beating each other up less. All across the developed world, this trend is repeated, with the average age of first consumption of alcohol increasing by two years in Australia since 1998. The pub and nightclub industry has lost the interest of young people in Britain. In the U.S., the teen birth rate has fallen down by two-thirds. In the U.K., about 3000 youngsters were in convicted custody when ‘07 rolled around. In 2016, that number has fallen below one thousand. Clearly, things are getting better. There is so much less to fear when teenagers aren’t going out and having abusive drunk sex.
Shoko Yoneyama, an expert on Japanese teenagers at the University of Adelaide, has gone as far to call it “kind of boring.” Everyone is a nerd now.
But this is coming at a cost. We are turning into really, really sad people. When I say that, I don’t mean that we are becoming sad as in lame (although the argument can clearly be made in favor of that), but rather we are becoming literally sad. We are frowning more, getting stressed more, and shockingly, we are killing ourselves more. The Wall Street Journal reported that depression is up 400% since 1990, and this seems to be more or less linked to our increased usage of life-easing tech. Dr. Ilardi, the author of the article, said the following:
Excessive screen time lulls us ever deeper into habitual inactivity, overstimulates the nervous system and increases production of the stress hormone cortisol. In the short term, cortisol helps us react to high-pressure situations, but when chronically activated, it triggers the brain’s toxic runaway stress response, which researchers have identified as an ultimate driver of depressive illness.
It is like we are playing a slot machine. We are constantly scrolling through Facebook or Instagram in search of satisfaction. We hope the next post to slide by will amaze us, and that’s the science of it. Dan Sanchez described experiments where both rats and humans would relentlessly press a lever that activated pleasurable feelings in their mind. He quotes Kelly McGonigal, who says the following: “When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself — the feeling is more like arousal”
Our phones aren’t making us happy, they are merely arousing us to the potential of an award, and this has become extremely addicting for us. The aforementioned WSJ article said the following in relation to a group of 1000 students who pledged to give up screens for a day: “Most students dropped out of the study in a matter of hours, and many reported symptoms of withdrawal associated with substance addiction.” We have traded addiction to alcohol for addiction to phones and other kinds of tech. The results are extremely detrimental. Although evidence that the two are causally related is lacking, suicides in the U.S. increased by 24% in a period between 1999 and 2014.
Even though studies haven’t conclusively shown it, the link is clear. Face to face human interaction is important for us to have. We are engineered to pick up context clues from another human standing or sitting across from us while conversing. Taking that away and putting it into the world of phones makes even the most intimate conversations completely impersonal. It is clearly taking a toll, and it is a problem we need to fix.
But how do we fix this? Surely, it would only throw gasoline on top of the fire to ask the state to sweep in and solve things. What the solution has to be in personal responsibility. We need to both take care of our own minds and bodies by being careful in the amount that we consume, and we need to band together with families and friend groups to work together and keep each other accountable. There need to be support groups for screen usage just like we have for addictions of other kinds.
There is a lot that you can do in your own life, too. If you’re eating or getting coffee with someone, don’t check your phone. Don’t even set it on the table. See if you can go an hour or two throughout the day without it. We seem to be more addicted to our phones, using them every ten to fifteen minutes, than just about any other drug.
This is a problem we all need to work together to fix. Practice responsibility, and practice limiting yourself. When it gets down to it, we are dying for face to face human interaction and dying without it.