Well-Being//

The Digital Age: Are We Losing Human Connection?

The impact of digital technology

	IAN HOOTON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/ getty images
IAN HOOTON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/ getty images

Written by Dr. Anwen Whitham and Lisa Jones of Positive Focus Training.

The potential negative impact that technology can have on brain health and well-being has received considerable media attention over recent weeks, so much so that it is difficult for any parent or education professional to ignore. The headlines report cases of addiction in children and young people caused by their excessive use of computer games, and has led to the classification of online gaming disorder being featured for the first time as a diagnosis in ICD 11 published by the World Health Organisation on 18th June. Other organisations are also starting to take a strong stance including the NSPCC listing online companies who are subjecting children to inappropriate content and the daily Telegraph starting the Duty of Care Campaign in this area, backed by some MPs including Matt Hancock the Culture Secretary who is calling for a ban of mobile phones in schools.

As training providers and clinicians who promote resilience and well-being in young people and school teams, we became increasingly aware of questions surrounding the impact of technology on overall health and well-being. Because of this, last month we delivered a key note presentation at the ISA conference with the title The Digital Age: Are we losing the human connection and a presentation to IAPS Education Committee on the Impact of Technology on Cognition. Over the next two articles we will take readers through what we have found in the academic literature to help you navigate your way through the headlines and enable you to input into school policy and address parental questions with confidence. At this point, lets add a note of caution; technology has moved faster than the research into its impact, (tech companies have better funding!), so although there is research out there, much more is ongoing and required to explore the impact that technology is having robustly.

So first, let’s be pragmatic, technology is everywhere and is a hugely successful industry that has “hooked” most of us at a personal and professional level. We are therefore all contributing to the digital tsunami though our own digital consumption and we need to take some responsibility for this – I dare say most readers own a smartphone, your classrooms are kitted out with interactive white boards and you use social media within the marketing strategy of your school. We have all contributed to the normalising of digital consumption over the past decade that enables us to remotely connect with people and access information at all times. So surely this continual access to information and other people can only promote our human connection, right?

Well, not exactly. First, let us look at what human connection actually is. Human connection is an innate need to create a social rapport with others. There is evidence of this need dating back to 30,000 BC in cave paintings, a form of communicating warnings and celebrating success. Having moved on a bit from cave paintings, connection today can be actual, in the presence of others, or virtual which creates a barrier between communication partners (how many of us have had a video conference in our slippers…). Human connection is important to our overall wellbeing. With the amazing development in FMRI technology, neuroscience shows how positive social support can be a protective factor in age related decline (Khondoker et al, 2017). In contrast, lack of social support is associated with increased mental illness including depression (Gariepy, et al, 2016). If we know that human connection is important for long term health and wellbeing, where does technology come into it? Well, firstly social connection can go wrong. Rejection, exclusion and loss can cause pain because some of the brain circuitry underlying physical and social pain are shared (Kross et al, 2011). Both actual and virtual rejection can have a significant effect on our wellbeing thus impacting our resilience and perception of self in the moment, in addition to influencing patterns of coping moving forward into adulthood. Because of our dependence on technology from an early age (apps have even been created for 2-year-olds), the exposure that young people have to actual and virtual rejection is increasing. Added to which there are other darker sides to the barrier created by virtual connection, in the form of cyber bulling, trolls and grooming.

So, what are some of the ways in which people can feel rejected by virtual connection?

  • Social media enables and promotes social comparison to others. Those who are more prone to an external locus of control, may look for validation from others and develop a negative self-view when comparing themselves to the idealised-self presented by others. This can have a negative impact on self-esteem contributing to the ‘I’m not good enough’ core belief that is at the heart of depression.
  • Group membership and social belonging we know to be important to our sense of meaning and purpose. The rise of the fear of missing out FOMO occurs when people don’t tune in and keep up to date with the crowd thus potentially marginalising their belonging within a group.
  • Research has shown that social media can help young people feel more connected (Spies Shapiro & Margolin, 2014), however the caveat to this is that a person’s predisposition towards connection and their social skills might be important in determining how connected people feel. People lacking social skills might not necessarily make friends on-line potentially leading to more isolation (Yang & Brown, 2013).
  • Constant checking, and interrupting ‘in the moment’ social interactions not only perpetuates immediate gratification for the user but can have a negative impact on others present. Mindfulness, a strategy adopted within many schools, emphasises the need to be in the moment. When we are with others and check our phone for a text or email, we immediately transfer our attention elsewhere sending an important message to the person we are with that they are not as important to us as the unseen other. This might impact self-esteem which in childhood and adolescence is vulnerable.

So why do we, as social animals, feel the need to prioritise or place such importance on our virtual relationships? Well, this is where the addiction element comes in that the media has picked up on. Putting it bluntly, tech developers have been very clever in their design, by employing psychological techniques to tap into the stimulus / response mechanisms of learning AND the reward circuitry. In doing so they have designed a wonderfully elegant product that we just can’t do without.

Let us explain further. Back in the late 1800s Ivan Pavlov did experiments into learning in which he taught dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. This later became known as classical conditioning where there is a pairing of stimulus (bell) to a reward (food) whilst the stimulus triggers an involuntary response (salivation). This wonderfully simple principal was applied in the development of the ping used in technology. We hear a ‘ping’ (or other sound we choose) and a reinforcer is provided, an email or text – a form of human connection. The response that we elicit is to check our device and then possibly send a message back and so the cycle continues. So why do we do this action, and why is this action rewarding? Well that is down to basic neuroscience. Essentially everything we do, think, believe, remember is governed by our brains through our neurochemical reactions. When we are happy we release particular neurochemicals including oxytocin and serotonin, as well as dopamine which is released in anticipation of a reward. In short, when we hear a “ping,” dopamine is released, making us anticipate a reward. This flood of dopamine provides the physical drive to check the phone which then provides the reward which is reinforced by the release of oxytocin and serotonin. This release of chemicals in the brain explains why it is so difficult to inhibit our response to check our phones at the sound of a ping, or even when we see other people checking theirs or receiving a message. Putting it bluntly, we want the buzz we get from the action.

It is really easy to understand this connection between a digital device and our actions, and we are aware of the potential that we all have to some level of digital addiction, so, in practice what do we do about it given that technology is everywhere?

  1. We have to be sensible. Note that there can be a bidirectional relationship in addiction, not all people are equally predisposed to being vulnerable to ‘addiction’. This is why some people can be professional gamers and not display the addictive tendencies of neglecting other areas of life in favour of the addictive stimuli, whilst others become hooked at the detriment to other areas in their life. Let’s not over-react, but let’s be aware of how technology is changing our behaviour and think about our relationship to our devices.
  2. As adults we model our behaviour to young people. Let’s be aware of our relationship with technology and model respectful and restrained usage rather than dependence, by promoting positive social skills and body language in our interactions with others, despite the temptation to check our devices.
  3. Let’s take responsibility for our actions because our actions have implications. How we respond to the call of the ping when in the company of others communicates a message to them. If your attention is drawn away from the physical person in your presence to your device, you are implicitly communicating the message that the device is more important than the person you are with. At best, this is not a good way to connect with others, at worst it could contribute to low self-esteem associated mental health problems by giving them the ‘you are not good enough’ message.
  4. Do not separate technology from well-being and resilience. It is important to have a gestalt view of the interconnections between our internal world and external worlds and we at Positive Focus Training believe that understanding these dynamics through the evidence base is key to providing people with the skills to be resilient.
  5. Encourage parents to read the small print terms and conditions that are associated with online activities including social media. Adults have a responsibility to protect children and young people from content, and most platforms stipulate a minimum age for use, COPPA and GDPR provide helpful guidelines in thinking about this further.
  6. Schools use technology in the classroom every day. Be aware of how much is being consumed in each lesson, is it absolutely essential to use technology in every class? can we empower teachers to step away from their white board from time to time?

Times are changing, we are in the middle of a digital tsunami which has unfortunately led to a new clinical diagnosis. We are all masters of our actions and with the knowledge we have, we can protect ourselves and others from potential harm by taking a sensible and controlled approach to our use of technology. Get in touch for a free consultation on how to sensibly integrate these concepts into your values system – [email protected]

References: Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA). Federal Trade Commission General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). European Union Gariepy, G. et al. (2016). Social support and protection from depression: A systematic review of current findings in Western countries. British Journal of Psychiatry, 209(4). 284-293. Doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.115.169094 Khondoker. M. et al. (2017). Positive and negative experiences of social support and risk of dementia in later life: An investigation using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. J Alzheimer’s Disease, 58(1): 99-108. Doi: 10.3233/JAD-161160 Kross, E. et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. PNAS, 108 (15) 6270-6275. Doi: 10.1073/pnas/1102693108 Spies Shapiro, L.A., & Margolin, G. (2014). Growing up wired: Social networking sites and adolescent psychosocial development. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 17(1), 1-18. Doi: 10.1007/s10567-0130135-1 Yang, C., & Brown, B.B. (2013). Motives for using Face-book, patterns of facebook activities, and late adolescents’ social adjustment to college. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(3), 403-416. Doi:10.1007/s10964-012-9836-x 

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