While wandering through a local bookshop within the city of Utrecht my eyes were drawn to a particular book called digital minimalism by Cal Newport. After reading the cover and some minor skepticism on my behalf I actually did end up buying (and reading) the book. According to Cal Newport mental health issues in colleges have shifted from being multiple issues like homesickness, depression and borderline issues to almost all being anxiety. The explanation the book gave for this shift in issues is without doubt, the rise of the smartphone. We are the first generation that is being brought up media-literate. Smartphones are with us almost twenty-four hours a day. Sending sounds and vibrations that interrupt us from our thoughts and can even cause some serious cases of FOMO (fear of missing out). Newport here for compares smartphones with slotmachines. You keep scrolling, tagging and posting to see what comes out of it. Almost as if trying to win a prize or so. This book is there for my motivation for writing this article on this specific topic, since I also am one of those media-literate people that has also dealt with anxiety related complaints
Mental health in the era of Iphones
The first Iphone was released in the year 2007. the functions on this device were very limited, but it obviously turned out to be a huge succes. The goal of the first smartphone was to combine your Ipod with a phone. So that you could listen to music and make calls from one device. The smartphone arrival has spread among western civillisation like thin air. IGen, the generation born between 1995 and 2012 do not recall a time before the internet. They are exposed to internet trolls, online criticism and use all kinds of quite negative social media forms before even attending high school. The average amount of time 12 to 24 year-olds that filled in a self-conducted survey with almost 30 participants in the Netherlands is three to four hours a day. This of course comes with physical benefits. The estimated danger that comes along with the outside world is relatively low when you spend most of the time at home on your phone. But when the smartphone use is taken outside this can cause serious danger in traffic. Like crossing a road without looking properly, or riding your bike forgetting about a traffic light (I have done this myself). Mental health issues have also been growing massively. Since the year 2011 teen-suicide and depression have grown immensely. In the U.S. between the years of 2010 and 2015 suicide rates increased especially among females (Twenge, 2019) it was shown that Adolescents who spent more time on smartphones and social-media were more likely to report mental health issues. Teens have always been looking for a place where they could rebel or be on their own, away from their parents. Whether this would be a nightclub, or a skatepark. Now this ‘safe zone’ for them is a smartphone, which thus, is actually not that safe at all.
There are several side-effects of being online all the time, which lead to a negative mental state. Sherry Turkle and Cal Newport both have written books about social media and smartphones, and especially the downsides of these. They have studied the side-affects of smartphone use, both the positive and negative and came to the conclusion that the negative were weighing more than the positive. Newport speaks of solitude deprivation whereas Turkle mentions the importance of face-to- face conversations in relation to developing empathy.
Solitude deprivation is a state in which you spend almost zero time alone with your thoughts, free from inputs of other minds (Newport, 2019). In the years before smartphone or complex technology existence (which only was 1995) you would have countless encounters in which you were forced upon solitude. Like standing in line at the check-out at your regular retailer. Or standing still in front of a red light when crossing the street. Newport states that due to smartphones people nowadays are solitude deprived. According to him the moments when we are alone, not checking a screen are disappearing. And for the first time in human history, we do not have to be alone with our thoughts anymore. This results in bedtime anxiety according to Newport. Because, when you want to sleep you firstly have to be alone with your thoughts but when you do not know how to deal with your thoughts you can get anxious, this especially seems to be the case among teens according to Newport, since they have not known a time before this.
Face to face
Sherry Turkle adresses the impact of face-to-face conversations, and how these can not be replaced by mere phone calls or text messages. “It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.” She states in her book Reclaiming conversation which was published in 2015. In this book she makes a distinction between connection and conversation. However she writes that “my statement is not anti-technology, it’s pro- conversation.”
In a case study performed in Switzerland, smartphone use-and addiction is being studied among students and young adolescents. It is the firsts study to examine this within the limits of Europe. According to the study smartphone addiction occurred in 16,9% of the participants. The amount of participants was 1.519. According to the study (Haug et al., 2015) “subgroups of young people have a higher prevalence of smartphone addiction.”
Addiction is then measured into “ 5 content areas: (1) ‘daily-life disturbance’, (2) ‘withdrawal’, (3) ‘cyberspace-oriented relationship’, (4) ‘overuse’, and (5) ‘tolerance” This case-study shows how serious of an effect smartphones have, since smartphone use is here combined with addiction and daily-life disturbance. This also supports my statement that the first thing some people do when they wake up is check their phone, even if they know they should be doing something else, but just cannot seem to help it. It is also quite intense to see that daily-life disturbance is a factor that is used to measure smartphone addiction. Since smartphones should be simplifying your life, not disturb it. This case study illustrates that a smartphone is not that “smart” to your life as you might think. Since it can cause addiction, and life-disturbance especially among subgroups of young people.
As mentioned earlier, in addition to other named sources I have conducted some research myself via a survey. I had a simple set of questions asking things about the average amount of screen-time of the user and the feeling that was connected to this amount of screen-time. I had this survey filled in by 26 students who all are situated in Holland yet with all kinds of nationalities. To make my results as precise as possible I asked the participants to fill in their estimated average screen-time by checking this on their phones (which can show you the exact amount of screen-time per day). 43% of the participants reported that their mental health indeed was effected negatively by their smartphone. Most of the people who filled in the survey (57%) spent three to four hours on their device and 37% of the participants wishes to spend less time on their device, this to me is an indicator that IGen is aware of the negative impact of smartphones, otherwise they would not see this as something negative.
FOMO is also playing a big part in wanting to be online all the time and at the same time wanting to spend less time on your phone. FOMO is a much know phenomenon in IGen. People have a fear of missing out which can lead to anxiety and overly pressuring yourself which ultimately leads to feeling lonely and/or leftout. IGen documents almost all social activities in Instagram or Snapchat stories and if you are not there you immediately will know about it the second you open social media (Elhai et al., 2016). FOMO has been around since the childhood of our parents, yet is seems to have made a breakthrough in IGen. Social media is a great way to make an event seem unmissable while in reality it is not even that fun at all or even turns out to be disappointing the moment you arrive. Going to events or doing activities purely for the sake of FOMO might make you feel exhausted and anxious in the end.
In conclusion IGen, the generation who is media literate and knows no time before smartphones thus really has significantly high mental problems, especially when it comes to anxiety which is highly related to FOMO, and when you look at my own research people seem to be aware of it and almost half of participants wish their smartphone use to be less. Especially the rise of the suicide rate in 2011, and the fact that they spend less time with friends and seem to be more lonely (figure p.2) seems troubling. This however does not mean the whole generation is ruined but it does state that mental health issues have skyrocketed in this generation that is brought up with smartphones. A solution to this is hard to find, since this era seems to be the rise of technology. 5g is coming around the corner and there are new technological inventions coming up every year. On an individual level you can limit your screen time by replacing it with other activities and not forgetting the importance of solitude (Newport, 2019) and conversations (Turkle, 2017).