Technology and Anxiety and Stress

Preliminary research is coming out of Great Britain investigating the relationship between technology (smartphone use) and anxiety and stress.  Early reports suggest those individuals who use their smartphones more frequently also experience higher stress levels.  Clearly a cause-and-effect relationship cannot be concluded from such limited data; however, it does raise the question of what impact does increased smartphone usage have on our stress and anxiety levels.

Popular opinion and commercials would have us believe that smartphones are the greatest thing since sliced bread.  After all, we can now connect to people around the world instantly via a variety of mediums, research answers to anything we want to know in a moment, and even document still images, video, and audio recordings of every experience of our lives, all in the palm of our hand.  Quite an amazing device indeed!

However, there may be some drawbacks to this great technology.  Regarding communication, the British researchers are hypothesizing that perhaps people become so used to and even dependent on receiving constant messages, emails, and tweets, that the moment they don’t receive one, their anxiety increases.  People feel compelled to check their phone constantly, which can then lead to disappointment when there are no new messages, and increased stress about why no one is messaging them, or when the next message might come. I have encountered several people who even say they are “addicted to their phones.” Furthermore, how is a person supposed to connect with the people or situation in front of them in the present moment if they are constantly looking at their smartphone?  Is there some element of real human interaction that is getting tossed aside in favor of this virtual and electronic interaction?

And what about having to try to think through an answer, solve a problem, or sit with the feeling of not knowing the answer to something immediately?  The instant gratification that these smartphones supply flies right in the face of developing any sort of frustration tolerance, or tolerance for not knowing or not being able to access something immediately.  It also prevents memory and learning pathways from developing and strengthening because they are no longer needed to retrieve information.

Regarding our new ability to record everything on video or still photos and instantly put it on Facebook, I wonder if people are actually still deriving the same pleasure they would out of just enjoying the experience they are having in the moment.  Or, are they instead feeling stressed about how many people “like” their photo on Facebook?  And what does it mean if no one comments on it?

While I fully support using smartphones, sharing experiences with friends, and looking up the answer to “where is Crimea located,” I think it will be important to continue thinking about, monitoring, and investigating the potential negative consequences on mental health of compulsive use of smartphones.  In the British study, 60% of teenage and 37% of adult respondents said they were addicted to their smartphones.  While I might debate the use of the word “addiction” in this context, the evidence is clear that smartphones are making a big impact on people’s lives, including their sense of well-being and ability to function.  Technology is increasing rapidly, and it comes with a price.  As a behavior therapist, I encourage individuals to reflect on their own behavior and make sure that price is not increased stress and anxiety, and if it is, it may be time to change their behavior with smartphones.

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