Technology and the pressures of modern life

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From the spread of reliable electricity to globalisation, to the internet, the last hundred years have completely changed the way we live. We now lead our professional and personal lives in 24/7 societies. Throughout the day and night, there’s always something for us to notice, or watch, or deal with.

As a result, we’re subject to a number of daily pressures:

  • 24/7 connectivity through our phones and technological devices, which mean that it’s harder to switch off
  • Social media, which can be very time consuming, over-stimulating, and also can trigger FOMO (fear of missing out), or a sense of inadequacy by comparison
  • Globalisation means that we are often connected to, and sometimes accountable to people from different time zones

 

 

All of these difficulties are likely to raise our stress levels. By repeatedly triggering our stress hormones, they can lead to stress hormone imbalances, and this can contribute to mental health issues such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

According to Alan Wallace http://www.alanwallace.org/, our society has changed more in the last 100 years than in the last 3000 in terms of advances in technology, medicine, etc… and the pace of this change has outstripped our biological capacity to adapt. Any time a species fails to adapt to its new environment, it is in trouble. He attributes a lot of the current crises — health crises, environmental crises, economic crises — to this discrepancy between the changes that we have brought about, and our ability to adapt to it from a biochemical and psycho-spiritual perspective.

Technology and neuro-development

One of the biggest changes of the last few decades has been the role of technology. These days, ‘technology’ can mean a wide variety of everyday objects or activities: e-mails, gaming, online videos, and lots more, across our smartphones, tablets, computers, and even ‘smart TVs’ at home.O’Driscoll, M.P., O’Driscoll, E.C. (2010.) ‘The impact of new technology in the workplace on mental wellbeing’. In: C.L. Cooper, J. Field, U. Goswami, R. Jenkins, B.J. Sahakian, eds, Mental Capital and Wellbeing, 1st ed. Chicester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp.673680.

We’re starting to see that these new devices can potentially affect our brain function. Our brains are highly ‘plastic’, meaning that their structure can change as they develop over time. They’re at their most changeable when we’re in childhood or young adulthood.

Research suggests not only that technology can overstimulate our brains, and lead to greater stress responses, but also that some of our everyday technology is changing the way that our brains are wired.Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: Atlantic Books.

The effects of technology on the brain are complex and multifaceted.

A lot of this is to do with how we encounter and process information. ‘Traditional’ reading (books, newspapers) encourages our brains to be imaginative and deeply-focused, while ‘online’ reading (phones, tablets, laptops) strengthens our ability to scan information quickly and efficiently. This means that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. London: Atlantic Books, p. 134.

Children are often exposed to technology and required to read lots of material at school. Because their brains are also more neuroplastic, they may quickly begin to experience:Taylor, J. (2012). ‘How technology is changing the way children think and focus’. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201212/how-technology-is-changing-the-way-children-think-and-focus [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

  • Shorter attention spans
  • Reduced capacity for some types of memory
  • Reduced capacity for innovative thinking

Although they’re more prominent in children, the neuroplastic effects of technology are visible in adults as well:Small, G.W., Moody, T.D., Siddarth, P., Bookheimer, S.Y. (2009). ‘Your brain on Google: patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching’. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, [online] 17(2), pp.116126. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19155745 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

  • In one UCLA study, experienced web-users were shown to have fundamentally different neural structures to novice users
  • In addition to this, the novice users began to display similar changes after only five hours of internet use over one week
  • Multiple studies have shown a loss of ‘grey matter’ volume in people with internet or gaming addictions

The brain is affected in several areas by heavy technology use:Zhou, Y., Lin, F.C., Du, Y.S., Qin, L.D., Zhao, Z.M., Xu, J.R., Lei, H. (2011). ‘Gray matter abnormalities in Internet addiction: a voxel-based morphometry study’. European Journal of Radiology, [online] 79(1), pp. 925. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19926237 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].Yuan, K., Qin, W., Wang, G., Zeng, F., Zhao, L., Yang, X., Liu, P., Liu, J., Sun, J., von Deneen, K.M., Gong, Q., Liu, Y., Tian, J. (2011). ‘Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder. PLoS One, [online] 6(6), e20708. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108989/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].Weng, I., Flammini, A., Vespignani, A., Menczer, F. (2012). ‘Competition among memes in a world with limited attention’. Scientific Reports, [online] 2(335). Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00335 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

  • The frontal lobe, which governs executive function, such as planning, planning, prioritising, organising, and impulse control
  • The striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses
  • The insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others

The current generation is the first to grow up surrounded by social media and internet-connected devices. There are currently few conclusive studies on the effects of these new tools, simply because the phenomenon is so recent.Aiken, M. (2016). The Cyber Effect. London: John Murray, p.139.

But we’re beginning to see some of the effects technology might be having on child and teenage behaviour. These include:

Academic performance declining

Using multiple screens while learning has been linked to drops in students’ grades.Sana, F., Weston, T., Cepeda, N.J. (2013). ‘Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers’. Computers and Education, [online] 62, pp.2431. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131512002254 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

In one study, students’ on-task behaviour started declining after about two minutes, because they instinctively started to check their text messages and social media accounts. After 15 minutes, only 65% of their time was actually being spent on schoolwork.Rosen, L.D., Carrier, L.M., Cheever, N.A. (2013). ‘Facebook and texting made me do it: media-induced task-switching while studying’. Computers in Human Behaviour, [online] 29, pp. 948958. Available at: https://ai2-s2-pdfs.s3.amazonaws.com/a449/623136ff47e87ec67a1a6f2980ef108c328d.pdf [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Cognitive function declining

One study of Chinese youths with ‘internet addiction disorder’ showed that they had less brain matter in areas associated with ‘cognitive control’ and ‘goal-directed behaviour’. The damage varied according to how long they’d had an addiction, which may indicate that the problem gets worse over time.Yuan, K., Qin, W., Wang, G., Zeng, F., Zhao, L., Yang, X., Liu, P., Liu, J., Sun, J., von Deneen, K.M., Gong, Q., Liu, Y., Tian, J. (2011). ‘Microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder’. PLoS One, [online] 6(6), e20708. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108989/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Meanwhile, in the West, US mental health practitioners report that young people are suffering ‘burnout’ earlier than ever before. Some are reporting symptoms in their first year of college, and heavy e-mail or social media users are the ones most badly affected.MacNicol, G. (2014). ‘I came undone: one woman’s horrifyingly real experience with burnout’. [online] Elle. Available at: http://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/advice/a2521/burnout-essay/ [accessed 26 Oct. 2017].

Inability to leave technology alone

The use of technology is something that often becomes worse over time, as one device or app leads to another:Ofcom. (2016). ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes report’. [online] p. 77. Available at: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0034/93976/Children-Parents-Media-Use-Attitudes-Report-2016.pdf [accessed 4 Sept. 2017]. McAfee. (2013). ‘McAfee Digital Deception Study 2013: exploring the online disconnect between parents & pre-teens, teens and young adults’. [online] Available at: https://www.mcafee.com/uk/resources/reports/rp-digital-deception-survey.pdf [accessed 4 Sept. 2017]. Weinstein, A., Lejoyeux, M. (2015). ‘New developments on the neurobiological and pharmaco-genetic mechanisms underlying internet and videogame addiction’. American Journal on Addictions, [online] 24(2), pp. 117125. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ajad.12110/abstract [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

  • 96% of young people in the UK use instant messaging every day
  • Almost three in ten 12-to-15-year-olds visit their main social media account more than ten times a day
  • Younger generations are more willing to give out personal information (pictures, physical descriptions, details of their lives) to people they don’t know
  • Teenagers are playing online games for longer, and using them to escape emotional problems; as a result, they may be vulnerable issues with academic work and socialisation

Technology and mental health issues

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Liu yi Lin, B.A., Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., Giles, L. M., and Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between Social Media Use and Depression among U.S. Young Adults. Depress Anxiety, 33(4), pp. 323-331. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4853817/.

We rarely get a day off from our devices, and more usually we’re exposed to them for hours on end. This can have significant effects on our mental health.

Positive effects of technology on mental health

It’s important to note that technological developments have some upsides for our mental health:Boyd, D. (2014). The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.23. Boot, W.R., Blakely, D.P. and Simons, D.J. (2011). ‘Do action video games improve perception and cognition?’ Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 2, p.226. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3171788/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

  • Social media can allow access to larger social circles, helping us to feel connected and less isolated
  • Greater access to information may allow our brains to engage in more ‘higher-order’ processing, such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • Gaming, for all its drawbacks, can also have a positive effect on young people’s task-switching skills, reasoning skills, and short-term visual memory

Negative effects of technology on mental health

But there’s increasing evidence that many of the effects of technology are harmful. Its use has been connected to a range of issues, including:

Below, we explain how some of these symptoms are related to our use of technology.

The repeated playing of video-games has frequently been linked to irritability and higher levels of aggression.

Much of this is because our brains are plastic. One study suggested that if we constantly simulate violent behaviour in games, even though the action isn’t ‘real’, it can reinforce the neural mechanisms responsible for aggression.Bavelier, D., Achtman, R.L., Mani, M., Föcker, J. (2012). ‘Neural bases of selective attention in action video game players’. Vision Research, [online] 61, pp.132143. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260403/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Gamers also seem to be less affected by real-world aggression. One study staged a fight in front of players and non-players: those who played violent video-games were less likely to report hearing fighting, judged the event to be less serious, and were slower to offer help.Bushman, B.J., Anderson, C.A. (2009). ‘Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others’. Psychological Science, [online] 20(3), pp.273277. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19207695 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Our main way of looking up information nowadays is to use an Internet search engine, such as Google or Bing. But this may be affecting our ability to remember what we’ve learnt, or to find new information.

Research has showed that some people remember facts less well when they think they can just search for them later on.Sparrow, B., Liu, J., Wegner, D.M. (2011). ‘Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips’. Science, [online] 333(6043), pp.776778. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21764755 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Concentration is a very malleable quality; it’s directly influenced by our environment.

Historically, we’ve accessed information by reading. This has many benefits:

  • It requires attention, imagination, and memory, and promotes each of these too
  • It develops our reflective, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills

But now there are many technologies to distract us; they constantly take our attention away from the task at hand. These include:

  • Television (with multiple channels, and accessible on many devices)
  • E-mail (the dominant mode of communication, visible even at home)
  • Informational websites (constantly expanding, and accessible on many devices too)
  • Social media (constantly being updated by people in our social circles)

Research is beginning to provide evidence for these worries. For instance, people who frequently play video-games show a reduction in their levels of attention, and it seems that there are connections between gaming and ADHD.Swing, E.L., Gentile, D.A., Andreson, C.A., Walsh, D.A. (2010) ‘Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems’. Pediatrics, [online] 126(214). Available at: https://sites.oxy.edu/clint/physio/article/TelevisionandVideoGameExposureandtheDevelopmentofAttentionProblems.pdf [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the leading experts on divided attention, says that:Levin, D.J. (2015). ‘Why the modern world is bad for your brain’. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Our brains are not wired to multitask well […] When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.

Multitasking makes us less effective at work, which means that either we get less done, or have less time to spend doing other things (or both). Some studies have suggested that multitasking increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can overstimulate our brains, and eventually contribute to HPA axis dysregulation.Gorlick, A. (2009). ‘Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows’. [online] Stanford. Available at: http://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Online interactions can fail to meet our real-world social and emotional needs.

Social networking, in particular, removes some of the constraints that face-to-face conversations put on us by teaching us to read each other’s body language. While this means that people with autism may feel more comfortable online, it can lead to socially awkward traits in those without autism.Finkenaeur, C., Pollmann, M.M., Begeer, S., Kerkhof, P. (2012). ‘Brief report: examining the link between autistic traits and compulsive Internet use in a non-clinical sample’. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, [online] 42(10), pp.22522256. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22350338 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

Research has also shown that excessive internet users were less efficient at processing face-related information, more prone to narcissistic behaviour, and vulnerable to low self-esteem.He, J.B., Liu, C.J., Guo, Y.Y., Zhao, L. (2011). ‘Deficits in early-stage face perception in excessive internet users’. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, [online] 14(5), pp.303308. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21247296/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].Gonzales, A.L., Hancock, J.T. (2011) ‘Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem’. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, [online] 14(1-2), pp.7983. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21329447 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

One critical online issue is cyber-bullying. Around 20–40% of young people have been victims, and it occurs more frequently online than in the real world, because there’s a perception that there are fewer consequences and a greater moral disengagement on the web.Tokunaga, R.S. (2010) ‘Following you home from school: a critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization’. Computers in Human Behavior, [online] 26(3), pp.277287. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756320900185X [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].Pornari, C.D., Wood, J. (2010). ‘Peer and cyber aggression in secondary school students: the role of moral disengagement, hostile attribution bias, and outcome expectancies’. Aggressive Behaviour, [online] 36(2), pp.8194. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20035548 [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

The desire to seek out information, and the reward we get from finding it, releases dopamine (the neurotransmitter for pleasure and reward) in our brains. Over time, the repeated release of dopamine can lead to those behaviours becoming addictive.Mental Health Daily. (2017). ‘High dopamine levels: symptoms and adverse reactions’. [online] Available at: http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/04/01/high-dopamine-levels-symptoms-adverse-reactions/ [accessed 26 Oct. 2017].

Many of our new technologies are especially appropriate for triggering dopamine. Receiving a new e-mail, notification, or tweet can give us a little ‘hit’ of gratification or anticipation. They come in small ‘doses’, are informative and sometimes enjoyable, and can arrive unpredictably.McGuire, H. (2015). ‘Why can’t we read anymore?’ [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@hughmcguire/why-can-t-we-read-anymore-503c38c131fe#.kljv578is [accessed 26 Oct. 2017].Weinschenk, S. (2009). ‘100 things you should know about people: #8 — dopamine makes you addicted to seeking information’. [online] The Team W Blog. Available at: http://www.blog.theteamw.com/2009/11/07/100-things-you-should-know-about-people-8-dopamine-makes-us-addicted-to-seeking-information/ [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].

In our modern, 24/7 world, we’re often tempted (or even required) to look at our e-mails or social media after the sun has gone down. This is a radical change from human history in the pre-electrical age, when we had much less access to artificial light.

Research has shown that staring at screens after sundown can affect our melatonin levels, and disrupt our circadian rhythms. This can lead to sleep issues:Czeisler, C.A. (2013). ‘Perspective: casting light on sleep deficiency’. Nature, [online] 497(s13). Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/497S13a [accessed 27 Nov. 2017].

  • To produce white light, electronic devices give off light at short wavelengths
  • This short-wavelength light is full of ‘blue light’, which affect our retinal cells most strongly
  • When these cells send signals to the brain, it thinks it’s still daytime, and may suppress the production of melatonin
  • This can throw our circadian rhythms off balance, and prevent deep, restorative sleep

One study asked 4,100 young adults between the age of 20 and 24 to fill out questionnaires about their use of devices at night:Volpi, D. (2012). ‘Heavy technology use linked to fatigue, stress and depression in young adults’. [online] Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-volpi-md-pc-facs/technology-depression_b_1723625.html [accessed 26 Oct. 2017].

  • Heavy mobile-phone use was linked to an increase in sleep disorders in men, and an increase in depressive symptoms in both men and women
  • Regular, late-night computer/laptop use was associated with sleep disorders, stress, and depressive symptoms in both men and women
  • Frequently using a computer without breaks further increased the risk of stress, sleeping problems, and depressive symptoms in women
  • A combination of both heavy computer/laptop use and heavy mobile use made the associations with sleep issues even stronger

Finally, social media in particular has been closely linked with depression. It can make us compare our lives with other people’s, and lead to lower feelings of self-worth, or higher feelings of self-consciousness. These can both exacerbate depressive thoughts.Vogel, E.A., Rose, J.P., Roberts, L.R., Eckles, K. (2014). ‘Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem’. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, [online] 3(4), pp. 206222. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Erin_Vogel3/publication/275507421_Social_comparison_social_media_and_self-esteem/links/55c2b71108aeb975673e47f6/Social-comparison-social-media-and-self-esteem.pdf [accessed 4 Sept. 2017].