With life getting better by almost all measurable standards, why have rates of depression and anxiety disorders been on the rise? We have entered the “information age” as a by-product of technological advances brought forth by the internet.
It seems that there have been some unsuspected side effects of what might be more of a Faustian bargain than first guessed.
Population increases have rendered the hunter-gathering way of life archaic, and equally our seemingly insatiable appetite for data makes it unlikely that we will be entering an entirely offline world any time soon.
Though technology has been blamed for the spike in mental health issues seen in this generation, it also may be the only route to equilibrium.
It seems as though just about everything that can be streamlined so as to cut small talk or boredom, is. From what Deliveroo or Just-Eat might bring us for dinner, what events we’ll be attending on Facebook and even what dates we might go on thanks to apps like Tinder and Grindr, the vast array of options available to us in our hyper-connected world can be overwhelming.
The assortment and easy availability of all these stimuli that were once key in our evolutionary survival can set our reward system haywire. Neural systems which are central to motivational drive pump out dopamine just before you do something you know is going to be pleasurable.
Contrary to popular belief dopamine does not provide the pleasurable sensation itself – that’s the job of endogenous opioids. However, it helps cement pathways that teach your brain what is pleasurable and what is not.
Playing a key role in addiction, dopamine is strongly associated with the behaviours that lead up to the opioid pay off. For example, people who smoke can often be seen fidgeting with items that are similar in size and shape to a cigarette – even putting them in their mouth.
If you’ve ever found yourself sliding your phone out of your pocket, unlocking it and listlessly scrolling through your apps or woken from a fugue state to find you’ve started typing “faceb…” on your web browser, dopamine is a likely culprit.
This may seem harmless but each time this happens it further solidifies these neuronal pathways and you are more likely to have a difficult time stopping yourself.
Your interactions in everyday life must compete with your phone and computers sleek, consistent and tactile design. If you’ve ever tried to start a conversation with a stranger, you may know that it rarely goes as smoothly as a swipe to the right.
This biochemical hijacking of the parts of our brain in charge of motivation, that initially attracts people with a promise of greater connection can leave them dependant, lost and alienated.
No one puts their bad days online. This furthers the stigma around mental health as it preserves the unattainable standards of perpetual happiness, stability and self-satisfaction.
Having access to a highlight reel of people’s lives can leave us feeling deflated, uninspired and utterly inept in comparison to the seeming virtuosos and wunderkinds we have surrounded ourselves with.
Not only that but the mediums through which we are discovering our incompetence draws us in and consumes a large volume of our time that we might otherwise be using to pursue our goals, thus leading to compounded frustration.
Have you tried turning it off and on again?
Whether someone suffers from a mental health issue catalysed by social media use, or otherwise, computers could be key in their treatment. One of the quickest growing forms of online mental health treatment is Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CCBT).
There are many benefits to this pioneering therapy documented in the award winning short film Code Therapy which is narrated by Carl O’Reilly. In the film O’Reilly talks about his struggles with depression in and out of college, his story is edited together with interviews with mental health professionals discussing the uses of technology in helping people heal.
Most of the companies involved with the film are offering mental health management programmes mixed with one on one calls with therapists. But is this any replacement for the long couch of a corporeal therapy office?
Dr. Stephen Schueller, a member of the Centre for Behavioural Intervention Technologies faculty said that, rather than comparing online support to face-to-face therapy “We should think about comparing these resources [CCBT] to nothing, because that’s what most people get.”
Though CCBT is viewed as the inferior substitute for real life therapy, there are some benefits to using computers that have been widely overlooked.
For example, A study of 154 people published in Computers in Human Behavior found that participants that were led to believe they were interacting with a computer were less afraid of self-disclosure, focused less on managing the recipients impression of them and were more willing to express profound feelings of sadness.
This could mean that in some cases, computers that are programmed to pick up on certain behaviours and phrases might act as a better means of intervention than a human therapist.
These intervention triggers would include examples such as an increased use of first-person pronouns which is indicative of increased introspection and correlated with depression. After such behaviours are picked up the user can be connected with people who have been through a similar experience.
Some sites such as Talklife might even read your computer’s cookies in order to develop a more complete psychological profile based on the sites your computer has visited, how long you spent there and what you did on the website. This may seem like an invasion of privacy but many companies are already using these methods to make money via targeted marketing.
If many people show greater comfort in discussing how they are really feeling with strangers online and even confessing into what is essentially a cyber-abyss rather than the people around them maybe something greater is required.
Rather than seeing these technologies as an opportunity to offload and upload the burden of mental health, we could work in collaboration with these flourishing resources – by stepping away from our keyboards and meticulously groomed avatars for a few moments each day to build more authentic, honest and less inhibited communities.
Perhaps even an entire world where vulnerability and openness can be encouraged.