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
1. Technology insulates us.
2. Technology leads to avoidance.
3. On-screen vs. face-to-face communication are different.
4. Social media is public judgment.
5. “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 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.
Reason #3: On-screen communication is really different from face-to-face.
I’m dating myself here, but remember when email first became popular (or for that matter, when the internet had a White Pages?) Experts in the early 1990s predicted we’d all be sipping mai tais on a beach with the time we saved using this new thing called electronic mail.
But what’s happened in practice is that all the methods of communicating via a screen—email, texting, and posting to social media—actually buys us time.
Here’s what I mean: on-screen communication allows time to compose, edit, and perfect, whereas face-to-face communication (or even calling someone—that thing in our jeans pockets is called a phone after all) happens in real-time.
Again, it’s additive. When we’re accustomed to taking our time to think of exactly what we want to say, it’s much harder to do it face-to-face and on the fly. And of course, when there’s less face-to-face experience to draw on, we stay shaky and uncertain, which in turn makes us anxious.
Reason #4: Social media is judgment in public.
No matter the platform, likes, and followers are enumerated, and everyone can see the comments. Public adoration of public shaming happens in front of everyone. And for teens and young adults still figuring out their identity and moral compass, managing social media can feel like a social crisis.
But what’s happened in practice is that all the methods of communicating via a screen—email, texting, and posting to social media—actually costs us time.
Social anxiety is a fear of being revealed and judged as somehow deficient. And social media pushes all those buttons perfectly. For many, the ability to curate and control what goes out on social media reduces our anxiety in the short-term. But long-term, all the impression management that goes into curation and filtering can make us feel like any approval we get is more for our “brand” and less for us as an authentic human. The result? The gap increases between what we project and who we actually are, therefore increasing our anxiety about being revealed.
Reason #5: “Compare and despair.”
Finally, by now, we all know that social media is the highlight reel and that no one posts about not being able to afford the electric bill or getting reamed out by the boss. We know the endless parade of pictures of tropical vacations and perfect families is a carefully curated show. But it’s hard not to compare and end up feeling inadequate or defective, which, again, is the heart of social anxiety.
All in all, just like Homer Simpson says of beer, technology is the cause and solution to all of life’s problems. Social media does bring us together, but at the same time, can tear us apart inside. Technology makes our lives more certain, convenient, and entertaining, but then we lose out on learning how to cope with uncertainty, inconvenience, and boredom.
The solution? Remember the saying about the mind being a wonderful servant but a terrible master? Same goes for technology. Ironically, a number of excellent online interventions are available for social anxiety, from apps to teletherapy. And according to the research, they work.
Overall, the tide is turning. People are craving real connection. So don’t toss your smartphone, but make room for people. Make room for face-to-face conversation. For instance, rather than automatically emailing your coworker in the next room, walk over and talk. In addition to using technology for all the good it provides, make sure you’re still interacting with your fellow humans. The date the iPhone debuted into our lives will always be an important date, but it won’t be one that will live in infamy.