Depression, anxiety, and other harming mental issues have become rampant and severe in this generation more than ever and may very well be due to technology. We can say it’s just the chemicals in our brains fiddling with our thoughts. We can say it’s just a matter of perspective. We can say it’s just drama. It could be, but these issues have become serious, leading to thousands of deaths. These fatal mental conditions have triggers, and we ought to know. According to this study, the leading cause of mental health issues today lies in our innate response to compare ourselves and our lives to others through our screens.
It’s your smartphone. If recently you’re feeling down and blue, the probable culprit is the time you spend browsing your Feed.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression, where people between the ages of 18 and 24 report the highest incidences. Forty million people in America above 18 have anxiety disorders, and in the recent report from “Stress in America,” millennials were the ones mostly affected. Suicide has been the third-leading cause of death between ages 10 and 24, taking the lives of 4,600 young Americans per year.
What happened and how technology might be involved?
To think, these conditions affected individuals living in a society wealthier than the rest of the globe combined. So, why is it happening? Some claims suggest, it’s because we now have a fuller access to resources about mental health issues. People have become aware of their psychological conditions more than ever. Others blame the rise of the common sources of stress in the recent years – financial problems, unemployment, job insecurity, family instability, and the surge of personal responsibilities.
These could be contributing factors, but there is one, rarely acknowledged detail that is causing our discontent.
The Study on technology and its health effects
We, people tend to compare ourselves to others around us. Even during the times when we’re truly happy with what we have, we become dissatisfied once we compare it to something better. It often happens, which you may have experienced, too, when watching The Kardashians.
Apparently, this response has been observed innate to primates, which animal models established. In an entertaining, yet enlightening TED Talk, Frans de Waal shared how capuchin monkeys respond similarly to humans in an experiment to illustrate how they compare resource acquisition.
For the experiment, two monkeys are placed in adjacent cages, and they were rewarded for handing a stone to a researcher. The first monkey has successfully handed out a stone, and gets a piece of cucumber as a reward. Monkey #1 is satisfied and enjoyed his cucumber. Money #2 completes the same task, and gets grapes instead, which he eats delightfully. Because monkeys like grapes in a greater amount than cucumbers, the next tests have become more interesting.
In the next round of test, monkey #1 completes the tasks again, and was rewarded with a cucumber. The monkey puts the cucumber to his lips, looks at the researcher, reaches outside the cage, throws the cucumber at the scientist, and shakes the cage. Monkey #2 successfully does the task, and again, eats his grapes with relish.
In the third round of test, as expected, Monkey #1 does the task again, and appears positively outraged by the cucumber, shaking his cage, throwing cucumbers at the researcher, making noises, and so on.
The once fine cucumber has now become unacceptable in the light of the possibility of getting a grape.
Similar observations can be observed on income disparity among people. The amount of money you earn can’t be a good indicator of your satisfaction. Instead, the rank of the amount of your income based on a comparison group seems more important. It can be seen in communities where income disparity is high. The Robin Hood Index is a measure that plots household incomes in specific neighbourhoods on a single graph. In communities where the Robin Hood Index is high, greater incidences of violence and homicide take place. Therefore, it’s not the amount of money that people earn, but income inequality that drives these behaviours.
Social comparison may have started as an adaptive behaviour in animals 540 million years ago. Comparing used to be a vital aspect of survival. The ability to compare help animals choose better reinforcement schedules. To survive, animals look around to know and pick the best field that can yield food. When socialization began, people choose to be a part of a group that’s doing better than others.
However, after 540 million years, this cognitive ability has developed with technology use, and has become more intense based on relational learning. What causes us to be angry or upset had become more than just a cucumber, but our comparison of ourselves with little more than cognitive labels—who is hot, who is cool, or anything in between. People had complex ideas of ‘fairness’, which can upset us if violated. With science and technology, we can now compare ourselves and our lives to others anytime and anywhere, which can be instant in the piles of achievement based on human cognition.
The role of your smartphone in all this
What you have in your pocket is a powerful device. We’re not even talking about its specs, but how it can affect your life and how you see it. With your smartphone, you can see what’s happening in different parts of the world, anytime and with ease. With it, you can carry out social comparisons constantly.
You will see successful people, maybe billionaires who live an easy, glamorous life. No matter how successful you are, other people may appear to be living a better life than you. With technological convenience, every day you can see how their lives go, you can know the things they have. Things you cannot do or you cannot own. It’s easy to assume what you will feel next.
The disparity now becomes clear, triggering the ancient psychological response that we developed for important evolutionary reasons.
It leaves us with a question: what can we do? We can’t build a world that’s good enough for everyone. We can’t turn everybody into Bill Gates. Even if we can, still it wouldn’t be enough. Americans still suffer from near-epidemic rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, despite having the most wealth from the rest of the world.
We can’t go back. We can’t reverse the evolutionary process. No one’s going to smash their smartphones either. What we can do is to create a modern mind for the modern world – but, how?
We need to adapt. Modern minds overcome the old psychological responses by becoming psychological flexibility experts. We have to be open and aware with our emotions, behaviour and cognition. We must learn to understand other people’s perspectives; feel a little of what they feel, even if it gets rough. We need to build a world that’s more accepting, mindful, values-based, caring, compassionate, and we need to begin now — in our community, within our family, friends, schools, nation and culture.
We have the right tools, and they, too, can be found through our smartphones and other forms of technology.
This video delves deeper into the subject :