At what passes for its best, technology would seem equipped to provide a slight relief from tedium/despair, or a semi-efficient if error-prone method of trying to keep in touch with your parents. What it seems wholly unequipped to provide is “happiness.” Think of the most smartphone-dependent people you know. Do they seem happy to you? If they do seem happy, look closer: are you sure that’s not just a kind of glazed, slot-machine delirium?
Of course, there is a difference between feeling slightly hollowed out after an hour’s listless scrolling and being depressed. Depression’s a consuming condition, and rarely linkable to any one specific thing. Still: is it possible social media, streaming entertainment, et. al., are worsening symptoms of depression—or, in extreme cases, manifesting it outright? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.
Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness
I don’t think the research has definitively found a link between technology and depression; there are correlations, but we don’t have evidence of causation. It’s possible that depressed people are more attracted to social media, that they’re using social media to medicate themselves; and there are certainly studies that show a connection between excessive smartphone use and depression. But I don’t think we’ve found anything conclusive. Scientists are still exploring this.
Anecdotally, one possible connection I’ve seen has to do with attention. Our attention is constantly distracted—sometimes called continuous partial attention. We never focus on anything, we’re constantly multitasking. As a mindfulness expert, one of the things I really recommend to people is that they take some time away from their smartphone or laptop to focus on something really simple, something unflashy—meditation, say, or their own breathing, or a walk in nature. Anything to counteract the effect of this continuous partial attention, which can negatively impact sleep and other crucial health markers.
There is also the issue of novelty addiction: we’re so used to the blinking flashing lights, to the endless notifications, that normal life can come to feel kind of boring. This can lead to depressive episodes: when we’re not on the internet, and our real lives are revealed to us, they can come to seem sort of dull. Which is why, again, it is so essential that we learn to find appreciation and gratitude for the simple things of life: petting your dog, taking a walk. We need to disentangle our happiness from these platforms.
What I find, too, is that social media generates envy, and a sense of lack: my life isn’t as good as my friends’, or some stranger’s. That, to me, is a real cycle downwards.
Assistant Professor, Communication, The University of Arizona, whose research explores how media affects health and well-being
People really do grow connected to their devices. What I’ve found, in the studies I’ve conducted on depression and smartphone use, is that it doesn’t have to do with how much you’re using your phone. There is no correlation between the time spent on one’s phone and an increase in depressive symptoms or loneliness. It’s when one feels a particular attachment to their device that things become problematic. If it’s hard for someone to pull away, or if someone’s family is commenting on how much they’re using their device—that is usually predictive of later depression symptoms.
Which is an important distinction: we’re talking about depressive symptoms, not clinical depression. Clinical depression is a qualitatively different state. That’s one of the issues of studying depression: it’s not a very linear progression. A depressed person is qualitatively different than someone who might exhibit higher depressive symptoms.
So if you’re a problematic user—someone who gets sucked into their device—it can increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms. Which is a problem. But we’re still trying to unpack what’s going on there.
Professor at San Francisco State University and Co-Author of TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics
Yes, it is—but it’s not the technology itself, it’s the way, physically, that we’re interacting with it.
A few years ago, we did a study that asked: how do most people sit when they’re using their smartphones or laptops, watching Netflix, etc. Most people, it turns out, start slouching: their heads tilted down, their spines collapsed into C-shapes. And the data is quite clear that when you assume this position regularly, you’re more likely to tap into hopeless thoughts and memories. You can still have negative thoughts in an upward position, but you’re not as likely to be affected by them; in fact, sitting upward is more likely to generate optimistic thoughts. Brain research out of Taiwan demonstrates that, when you’re in a slouched position, your brain literally has to work harder to evoke positive thoughts than in the upright position.
Another relevant study is one we just finished, which examined student experience during Zoom lectures. The study had two stages. First, we asked participants to take their class normally and to report, afterwards, their levels of alertness, attention, involvement, etc. Then we asked them, the next time they attended that class, simply to make an effort to be animated—to be physically responsive. The change was remarkable: 80% of students reported a significant change in their energy, attention, involvement levels and remembered much more by the end of the class.
The takeaway, I believe, is that we need—for learning and for living—to engage or configure our brains to be present. Sitting passively while watching screens inhibits us from doing this: we slouch, our energy drains. Watching streaming video is a fundamentally passive activity. What this does is train us to be more passive; and the more passive we are, the lower our energy levels will be.
Director of Research at the University of California’s Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential
Overall, technology is making your life better. One day without your fridge or water heater would quickly remind you of that. But most of the gadgets in your home don’t demand your attention for hours a day like your phone does.
Twitter and Instagram aren’t inherently bad for you, but they definitely can be. That’s particularly true if they start interfering with your real-world relationships. Those are the ones that matter most for how you feel.
The simplest way to protect your relationships from your phone? A simple if-then rule to live by: If someone is talking to you, set down your phone and look at them. Make very few exceptions.
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