Technology And Wellbeing

Mary Walker is a psychologist at RWA Psychology – Family Matters

There are lots of great things about technology and social media. None of us would gladly give up our devices which provide a sense of safety – we can let others know where we are, contact our loved ones and call an emergency in, at the scene. We can communicate immediately when needed. These devices have changed our lives in a comparatively short time. Twenty years ago, not many people had an email address. We used to purchase postage stamps in rolls of 100. Now we hardly use them. When I started working in secondary schools 14 years ago, mobile phones were not allowed and students who had them, had to hand them in at the beginning of the day. Needless to say, this would be unworkable now. Most schools require students to have laptop devices from age 12.

There is a problem with this rapid expansion of technology in that the etiquette of use has not had time to catch up. Understanding the consequences of posting information, photos etc., sexting, phubbing (phone snubbing) other forms of online bullying and things ‘going viral’ is hard to grasp for any of us but especially young people. Imagine the potential of your every social gaff or embarrassing mistake being broadcast to your whole social network. It’s like giving a two-year-old the keys to the sports car.

Addictiveness of technology and its effects on relationships? Simon Sinek talks clearly about the concerns of “growing up in a Facebook/Instagram world” (Simon Sinek TED talk) where he likens receiving a text or Instagram post as receiving a “hit” of the feel-good chemical in our brain called dopamine. Overuse of technology and devices negatively influences the learning and practicing the skills of relationships.

During the development of the DSM V, which is the manual of psychological disorders, there was pressure to include “Internet use disorder” to describe symptoms of emotional shut-down, lack of concentration and withdrawal when someone is unable to access their devices. Many people will recognize in themselves or others a sense of frustration, irritability etc. when technology is not functioning or unavailable.

We’ve all seen and heard about people getting a long-awaited booking into a restaurant and then spending the time photographing the food rather than being there with the company and the experience.

Rules of technology are unclear. We all find it hard to resist the urge to respond or just peek at the phone when we hear a message come through. What are the good manners here? Is it ‘no phones at the table’ in your household? Do we ask the others present if it’s okay to check this as we are expecting an important call? Would we allow an actual person to come up to the table and barge into the conversation without an ‘excuse me’?

We want to be together but also connected online. There is research showing that even the presence of one phone on the table, when people get together changes what people talk about and lessens the chance of them discussing significant personal issues due to the risk of being interrupted.

Technology rules? Other research noted the ‘rule of threes’. If you are in a group – say having a meal – then you check that at least three people are attending to the speaker, before you check your phone. Naturally this will keep topics more superficial because it’s not always the same three people. Even where the conversation is between two people a phone on the table results in each feeling less connected. Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan’s study in 2010 showed a 40% drop in the markers of Empathy, mostly since 2000, among students which researchers linked to digital use.

A different kind of mindfulness? We talk about the importance of Mindfulness ‘being in the moment’. Heck, we’re in everybody’s moment. What the niece has cooked for dinner on Instagram, things we’re not interested in, re-posted from someone we don’t even know by someone we know only vaguely. DVDs in cars so we don’t have to look at the scenery. Recently in a club dining room I noticed four screens all showing different material. Yet there is the sense that the more connected we are the lonelier we feel.

Often a phone is used to avoid other people. How often do we see someone absorbed in their phone and decide not to approach them? Conversely, there is research suggesting that many people use the phone to avoid being alone, and the capacity to be alone without feeling distressed is important to mental well-being.

Maybe we need to consider moderation and to teach by example.

Messaging is great but connecting socially and being with people is more important. Keeping devices out of the bedroom and preserve sleep-time. Keeping them out of study areas to enable concentration. Giving the sense of being in control of devices rather than the other way around.

Mary Walker is a psychologist with a special interest in depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma and disabilities. Call RWA psychology for an appointment with Mary or one of our other psychologists.

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