Disconnecting to connect: digital media use might just be distancing us from one another
By: Yves Mangulabnan
When you get on social media, do you remember how you felt after browsing through endless feeds of posts from friends and other users? Technology is so pervasive nowadays that it has become almost impossible to avoid. It has made our lives incredibly efficient and interconnected, but society should also work to address the problems associated with it—and the problems are by no means trivial or small. According to a study published last month in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “more U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s (vs. the mid 2000s) experienced serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts”—and the authors suggest that excessive screen time might be the cause. I sat down and discussed this with UMN psychology professor Bonnie Klimes-Dougan.
During our conversation, Dr. Klimes-Dougan noted that while there are many different mechanisms that can affect mental health, most people don’t realize the detrimental effects of digital technology use such as social media. She points to three things social media tends to do: it decreases our social contact, it can interrupt sleep, and it amplifies the “comparative-self.”
On her first point about social contact, Dr. Klimes-Dougan says spending more time on your digital device means less time spent engaging in real social interaction with others. For example, it doesn’t take much brainpower to keep track of your notifications or text messages, but it does take a lot to step away from the safety of a screen and into a real-life social situation—like inviting a friend out for coffee and having a conversation that doesn’t involve a keyboard. And yes, asking someone depends on the social context, but these are the things that will teach a young person how to read social context. When they skip out on something as seemingly simple as a coffee chat, they miss out on the nuances involved in social interaction; they miss out on developing interpersonal skills. “There’s something satisfying about getting an email message, or smiling about something funny your friend said, or a cute dog that they posted, but it isn’t like having a personal relationship.”
Dr. Klimes-Dougan’s second point about sleep makes intuitive sense. She says “it disrupts your sleep because people are waking up to check their phone, like things are buzzing and waking them up and they’re staying on their phone as they’re trying to go to sleep at night.” I’m sure you can relate. The notifications, emails, alerts, texts—they want all of your attention. The constant attending to your digital world can throw your sleep schedule out of rhythm.
On her third point, Dr. Klimes-Dougan talks about the “comparative-self.” The idea that those who are already in a vulnerable state of mind slip down this road of “heightened self-consciousness.” Social media amplifies this because the social media feeds of other people are often filled with highlights and happiness. You feel left out, for example, when you’re sitting in your room and your friends are out having fun. You feel left out because they didn’t invite you, and then you see all the pictures on social media of how much fun they had. This creates a snowball effect where self-consciousness turns into anxiety. You repeat this habit and suffer through the same feelings; that’s when it becomes a real problem.
In the end, Dr. Klimes-Dougan says that there are many different factors to this topic and that we shouldn’t only focus on media use. “I’m just wanting to make sure we don’t overlook other possibilities.”
But all of this doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a greater awareness that constant screen time can do more harm than good. Surprisingly, the few people who recognized the risks were the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg (just to name a few). I think these people understood very well of the impacts of screen time, especially on their children. Jobs had strict rules for his children on tech use at home. Gates had similar rules at the dining table and didn’t give his kids smartphones until they were older. Zuckerberg encouraged his daughter to read Dr. Seuss and to go out and play. It is interesting that these tech gurus who wanted their technologies in everybody’s hands were limiting it from their own kids.
To be clear, I’m not saying all digital technologies are bad. However, it seems beyond debate that social media has a profound effect on young adults, especially adolescents who are still trying to develop a sense of who they are.
Digital technology such as social media is not a sufficient replacement for real social interaction. We are just not built for that. These technologies simply facilitate the real social interactions that we all need - since we are social creatures after all. In the end, try to fight the urge to fidget with your mobile device while you are out and about.
It’s okay to listen to music or a podcast on your way to class or wherever, but also try to be aware of the world around you. When you can, greet those whom you know or half-know (or the world if you’re feeling extra ambitious). Don’t get too absorbed. Instead, remember to look up from your device, and be aware of the present moment.