Technology’s Impact on Youth Mental Health

Not-so-fun fact: 80% of us hold our breath when we check email.

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Courtesy of Marvin Meyer / Unsplash
Courtesy of Marvin Meyer / Unsplash

In his Huffington Post article “The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager,” Thacher School Headmaster Michael Mulligan relays the status of teens today. On the one hand, he extols them as “confident, connected, and open to change.” They are service-oriented, embrace diversity, and seek solutions to environmental problems. One could interpret Mulligan’s views on Gen Z as happy, fulfilled, and purposeful, yet Mulligan reports the opposite. He says,“We have raised a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair.”

He reiterates his point with evidence from former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz claims, “They are so stressed out, over pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation.” While Deresiewicz highlights several key reasons for his statement, he does identify students’ digital lives as a contributor.

In a 2014 study at Baylor University, 60% of the students self-diagnosed as addicted to their cell phones. Could an overuse or dependence on digital devices and social media cause the same “stressed out, over pressured” student who may “exhibit toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation?”

A little known physical fact is that 80% of us hold our breath when we check email. Linda Stone, formerly of Apple and Microsoft Research coined the phrase “email apnea” when she researched and found that people inhale when they check email, but in the anticipation of what is to come, they neglect to exhale. Without the exhale our bodies shift into a high alert state of fight, flight, or freeze. If one thinks about the Baylor Study findings that college women spend 10 hours a day on their cell phones and men 8 hours, it means that college students are walking around in a state of non-breathing anticipation with an alert and frightened sympathetic nervous system. These physical conditions create anxiety and fear which is only augmented by Deresiewicz’s findings.

There are other reasons for anxiety including “Momophobia,” or ‘No Mobile Phone Phobia.’ Depression can be caused by Facebook and Instagram with a false reality that one’s friends are happier and more popular than they are based on the number of pictures tagged and posts liked. Aimlessness and lack of motivation can be blamed on the seductive and addictive nature of video games that are designed to entrap the user in a flood of dopamine hits, thus making it more difficult to put the game aside and complete schoolwork or go to a part time job.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, where do we start? What are the solutions? One way is to go back to 1854 with Thoreau’s words, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” In today’s world, “Don’t be the tools of your tools” can be transformed to “Don’t let technology distract you and use you to your detriment. Use technology intentionally with purpose.” Becoming a mindful digital user takes time, and it is easier if done with friends. Check out the LookUp Challenge to find out how!

Originally published on LookUp.

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