Technology is essential, but it’s also making us—especially younger generations—more anxious. But how exactly? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen weighs in on 5 ways technology feeds anxiety.
July 4, 1776: the United States declared independence from Britain.
July 20, 1969: humans landed on the moon.
November 9, 1989: the Berlin Wall came down.
Will we look back on June 29, 2007, as one of those watershed dates? Only time will tell, but the day the first iPhone came out certainly changed our psyches forever.
Studies, magazine articles, and cultural rumblings tell us that technology is making us more anxious. A new study in the journal Emotion of over 1 million American high school students found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on non-screen activities like face-to-face socializing, exercise, or homework were psychologically worse off. What’s more, the study found that when kids reported a shift to more screen-based activities, a decline in happiness followed, implying a cause-and-effect relationship.
But how exactly does this happen? What is the nitty-gritty of technology leading to anxiety? With the caveat that these are my professional speculations, not the results of an actual study, here are five big reasons.
5 Links Between Technology and Anxiety
- Technology insulates us.
- Technology leads to avoidance.
- On-screen vs. face-to-face communication are different.
- Social media is public judgment.
- "Compare and despair."
Let's explore each in more detail below.
Reason #1: Technology insulates us from small uncertainties but leaves us vulnerable to the biggies.
Uncertainty is the root of anxiety: “What’s going to happen?” “What do they think of me?” “What if this goes badly?”
And in some ways, technology takes away uncertainty. Smartphones allow us to control our world and our consumption like never before. We can stay immersed in a controlled world of our choosing for long stretches. We can be guided by Google Maps, check out reviews to preview activities, products, or destinations, look at menus ahead of time, click to see exactly who’s on the invitation guest list. But as a result, we log less time and less practice spent navigating an uncertain world.
You’d think that taking away uncertainty would make us less anxious. But what’s happened is that instead, technology has taken away how much experience we gain in handling uncertainty.
Simultaneously, the world has become more uncertain for the big things like forging a career and finding love. Secure employment is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the new gig economy. And the zillions of options available on online dating services make us anxious about whether or not we’ve truly found “the one” or if there’s a better match a swipe away.
Therefore, combine a lack of experience dealing with small uncertainties with an expansion of big uncertainties, and it’s no wonder we feel anxious.
Reason #2: Technology allows us to avoid people (and the negative emotions that go with people).
Technology makes our lives easier and more more convenient, but the other side of that coin is that technology allows us to avoid people. I saw an ad on the subway for a food delivery service: “Satisfy Your Craving for Zero Human Contact.”
We all have moments of people hating, many of them totally justified, but when people-avoidance becomes a default, we end up with a dearth of experience. One, we don’t have as much information about what is likely to happen, so we inevitably think things will turn out worse than they actually do. Two, when we avoid people, our confidence is shaky. We’re not sure how to handle things, not sure that we’re capable, and that in turn makes us avoid them more.
But it’s not just avoiding people, it’s avoiding the uncomfortable emotions that come with interacting with people: awkwardness, anxiety, boredom, self-consciousness. Practices like ghosting are the result of bad manners and conflict avoidance. But all the negative emotion you forego ends up dumped on the other person. It’s the worst kind of outsourcing.