The last twenty years — the digital age — have fundamentally changed the way we interact with those around us, our surroundings and, perhaps most importantly, ourselves. In fact, one could argue that the last ten years — the smartphone age — have had a deeper impact on human behavior than the last several centuries.
While wise use of technology generally leverages and accelerates progress, imprudent use of consumer tech can have devastating consequences for our mental and physical health. Additionally, significant cultural shifts — urbanization, an increase in single households, and thus a decrease in traditional, deep-rooted tribe-like social support systems — catalyze the development of a bevy of mental disorders.
Firstly, the amount of information consumed daily has skyrocketed. This is a problem because the human brain’s capacity for new information is “severely limited”. Indeed, the modern human brain has existed for 40,000 to 50,000 years and hasn’t changed much during that period. The amount of information available, however, has increased dramatically.
The consequence of overexposure to an abundance of information is a decrease in attention span on an individual level and collective level; a controversial report by Microsoft even suggests that the average human attention span doesn’t even match up to that of a goldfish. Moreover, exposure to certain kinds of news can have a negative effect on mental wellbeing, as in the case of traumatic news content, which can trigger symptoms of PTSD.
Additionally, the digital age has fundamentally changed our daily behavioral patterns. Social media use, for example, a relatively new kind of activity to humankind, is already deeply impacting daily routines. Today, the average human spends 136 minutes (worldwide) per day on social media. This is more time than spent eating (91 minutes, OECD 28) and interacting with family members (37 minutes, USA) combined. The highly addictive character of social media, the engineering of which hijacks the brain’s dopamine system for instant gratification, can unfortunately be a blueprint for unhappiness. Addictive social media use has negative effects on self-esteem and life satisfaction, and seems to be linked to depression due to factors like upward social comparison. Moreover, it disrupts positive behavior like exercise or healthy sleep and facilitates exposure to cyberbullying.
Whether in work or private life, the perceived “need to be constantly online” is real and growing. Internet addiction has a direct impact on anxiety, depression and stress, while atomized living structures and a decline in social and spiritual support systems exacerbate the problem. And yet, we can’t ignore the fact that modern life is largely digital. Therefore, a mindful and highly selective approach to the type of information consumed, rather than complete abstinence, is the most practical approach. But to achieve this, building resilience by developing self-monitoring and self-regulating capabilities is key.
Author: Simon Seibold