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In a world where “happiness” is an app away… why is it that records of mental health disorders are at their highest ever? It may seem convenient to blame technology as the villain here, however, social media is also where conversations surrounding mental health are propagated.

If I ever have kids of my own and they happen to feel unwell one day, I hope to never throw the response “It’s probably because you’re always on your phone” their way. Conversations with adults can often be hard to approach when the singled-out cause of your misery is pointed out to be the device you are reading this article on. Dismissiveness towards topics like mental health have led many to take to technology to address these issues themselves. But why is it that as a generation, those of us born 1996 and later feel like the world we live in is plagued by a mental health crisis? Turns out, mom was not that off. Numerous studies point to the use of technology, particularly social media, as a leading cause of the depression and anxiety amongst today’s youth. Since the initiation of lockdowns, a survey conducted by the US Centre of Disease Control and Prevention showed that since 2019, anxiety rates have tripled (8.1% to 25.5%) and depression rates have quadrupled (6.5% to 24.3%) by the end of June 2020.  However, social media is also where conversations surrounding mental health are propagated. This article explores the weirdly fascinating connection between technology and our mental health.

In his book, The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt investigates the rise of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses amongst today’s youth. The central point he builds up to is that as a generation, Gen Z (born 1996 and over) have been raised by overprotective parents who actively limited the number of risk-taking activities they were exposed to as kids. As a substitute to the outside world, parents handed smart devices to their children. When the minds of young children are conditioned to perceive the outside world as dangerous, they have no choice but to explore the world through the screen handed to them.

However, the digital space poses a graver threat. The virtual world of social media allows its young users to create an online persona which then drops the anchor of what defines them in the charging tides of social trends and political ideologies. This may leave many in empty, depressive, and anxious states without a sense of self to fall back on when so much of their lives are based on a platform that sheds trends, ideas and identities away at rapid rates.  Haidt finds that the suicide rate for teenage girls went up by 70% since 2010, which coincided with the integration of social media in daily life. One of the reasons why social media affect teen girls particularly harshly is the flood of photoshopped images of fully grown women, who are defining what “womanhood” should look like. This leaves many young girls with an insatiable sense of dissatisfaction with their growing bodies and a fractured self-image.

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The second way in which social media is instrumental in worsening mental health is its addictive user-design. In her bestselling work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff articulates how social media incorporates principles of ‘behaviourism’ to draw the attention of its users. Behaviourism, developed by B. F. Skinner, is the deterministic theory that an individual does not have any free will and all of one’s choices are a product of actions that have been reinforced by rewards or punishments from the environment they are in. Skinner’s studies developed four key reward schemes to condition a learnt behaviour. The most devious scheme is that of a variable reward schedule where a test subject was rewarded randomly for a behaviour and was then left to figure out what actions would lead to reward again. Analogous to pulling the handle on a slot machine in anticipation of winning the lucky combination or pulling down your Instagram feed to load the latest posts.

Not knowing when one could be rewarded but knowing that reward is certain is what leads to a dependency on your phone and its apps to fire up your bio-chemical reward system. This variable reward system works against the human brain’s natural call to find cause-effect relations. The need to establish a pattern takes priority in the brain over functions of self-control and moderation. During this period, one may find themselves addicted to scrolling through their social feed. As the cycle repeats, the mind numbs itself to the reward derived from the app and the user is left to interact with the world outside their screen in a vacant manner. This leads to depression and anxiety amongst young adults with an unhealthy reliance on their phones.

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However, not all news is bad. There is, in fact, a counter-revolution happening to address the psychological casualties that social media has left us with. For instance, since the imposition of lockdowns self-help apps are on the rise and popular with the youth. These apps are focused on providing open access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tools to those seeking to improve their mental health. Apps for mindfulness, meditation, habit-tracking and journaling are amongst the best sellers in the “health and lifestyle” categories of both Google Playstore and the Apple Appstore. Sensor Tower App Analytics saw a combined increase of over 2 million downloads in the category with the “Calm” meditation app leading the way with a 31% increase in downloads in since January.  Headspace, another popular meditation app, has reported that 43% of their users are within the age range of 18-24. These apps are teaching young adults the fundamentals of habit formation in digestible, interactive bits. The apps have become so relevant in the battle against mental illness that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has a webpage dedicated to evaluating the effectiveness of each app as alternative to professional mental health support.

One of the key factors as to why many young adults struggle to seek professional help for their mental health is that the open space and non-monetary nature of mental health support online helps create a sense of community for a generation raised in a digital home. Consequently, therapists and mental health practitioners are moving their practice online on Instagram and YouTube. The visual albeit para-social nature of these interactions has allowed conversations around mental health to progress at unprecedented rates and to challenge the stigma held by older generations. Some notable social media therapists include Dr. Kati Morton (YouTube: 1 million subscribers) and Dr. Nicole LePera (Instagram: @the.holistic.psychologist: 2.59 million followers). Additionally, Youtubers like Daniel Howell and Kat Napiorkowska, both suffering from depression, have documented their journey as a reminder to anyone whose mind is working against them, that even at your lowest, you are not alone in this internal struggle.

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As well-intentioned as these advancements in the discussion around mental health are, one can’t help but point to the shovel that is digging one’s own mental grave: the technology that is your therapist as well as your dopamine dealer are just an app apart! As a generation living in the world of screens, are we capable of drawing the line between the damaging and beneficial effects of social media on our mental health? The issue that needs to be addressed here lies in objective reassessments by the social media influencers and digital creatives who design the apps and their content for a generation of users. A particular emphasis must be drawn on the short-term gain from engagement driven ad-cents in comparison to long-term drawbacks in attention span and life satisfaction that will be experienced by the future generation of this world.

Optimistically, if the demand for self-help apps and mental health based social media accounts continue to gain traction, then we could be entering a digital revolution where technology can be directed to work with our minds than against it. Until then, it is up to us to assess the value added from one’s relationship with their own devices.

Article taken from Tra i Leoni n. 92, October 2020. You can read the whole edition here.

Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash.

Author profile

3rd year BSc Economic and Social Sciences.
I write about politics, society, psychology and anything in between.

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