July 4, 1776: The United States declared independence from Britain.
July 20, 1969: Humans landed on the moon.
November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall came down.
Will we look back on June 29, 2007, as one of those watershed dates? Only time will tell, but the day the first iPhone came out certainly changed our psyches forever.
Studies, magazine articles, and cultural rumblings tell us that technology is making us more anxious. A new study of over 1 million American high school students found that teens who spend more time on screens and less time on non-screen activities like face-to-face socializing, exercise, or homework were psychologically worse off. What’s more, the study found that when kids reported a shift to more screen-based activities, a decline in happiness followed, implying a cause-and-effect relationship.
But how exactly does this happen? What is it about technology that allows it to wreak chaos on our mental states? Here are five big reasons that technology may make us anxious.
1. Technology insulates us from small uncertainties, leaving us vulnerable to the biggies.
Uncertainty is the root of anxiety. We ask ourselves questions, hoping to rely on something known: “What’s going to happen?” “What do they think of me?” “What if this goes badly?”
In some ways, technology takes away uncertainty. Smartphones allow us to control our world and our consumption like never before. We can stay immersed in a controlled world of our choosing for long stretches. We can be guided by Google Maps, read reviews before spending money on trips or activities, rehearse answers to job interview questions using Glassdoor, and review Evites to see exactly who’s on the guest list. But as a result, we log less practice navigating an uncertain world.
You’d think that taking away uncertainty would make us less anxious. But instead, because technology has lessened our experience handling uncertainty, we’re less prepared to deal with ambiguity when it arises.
In the meantime, the world has become more uncertain for the big things—like forging a career and finding love. Secure employment is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the new gig economy. And having access to zillions of potential partners through online dating services keeps us anxious about whether or not we’ve truly found “the one” or if there’s a better match a swipe away.
Therefore, combine a lack of experience dealing with small uncertainties with an expansion of big uncertainties, it’s no wonder we feel anxious.
2. Technology allows us to avoid people (and the negative emotions that go with people).
Features and apps make our lives easier and more convenient, but one consequence of that convenience is that it lessens our interaction with other people. For example, I saw an ad on the subway for a food delivery service claiming to “Satisfy Your Craving for Zero Human Contact.”
Sure, we all want to dodge the crowds and no one likes waiting in long lines, but when people-avoidance becomes a default, we end up with a dearth of experience. For one thing, we don’t have as much information about what is likely to happen when we spend time with other people, so we default to predicting worst-case scenarios. Secondly, when we avoid people, our confidence is shaky. We’re not sure how to handle things, think of ourselves as awkward, and step back from future opportunities.
And though we might blame our hermit-like behavior on people-hating or extreme introversion, it’s probably more than that. What we’re truly avoiding is the uncomfortable emotions that come with interacting with people like awkwardness, anxiety, boredom, and self-consciousness. Practices like ghosting are the result of bad manners and conflict avoidance. But all the negative emotion you forego ends up dumped on the other person. It’s the worst kind of outsourcing.
3. On-screen communication is really different from face-to-face.
I’m dating myself here, but remember when email first became popular (or for that matter, when the internet had a White Pages?) Experts in the early 1990s predicted we’d spend half our workweek sunbathing with the time we saved using this newfangled thing called electronic mail.
But what’s happened in practice is that all the methods of communicating via a screen—email, texting, and posting to social media—actually allow us the comfort of reacting to things on our own timetable. And that takes up more time.
Here’s what I mean: on-screen communication allows time to compose, edit, and perfect, whereas face-to-face communication (or even calling someone—that thing in our pocket is called a phone, after all) happens in real-time.
Again, it’s additive. When we’re accustomed to taking our time to think of exactly what we want to say, we find it harder to do it face-to-face and on the fly. And of course, when there’s less real-time experience to draw on, we stay shaky and uncertain, which, in turn, makes us anxious.
4. Social media is judgment in public.
No matter the platform, likes, followers, and comments are measured for the world to see. Public adoration or public shaming happens in front of everyone. And for teens and young adults still figuring out their identity and moral compass, managing social media can feel like a social crisis.
Social anxiety is a fear of being revealed and judged as somehow deficient. And social media pushes all those buttons perfectly. In the short term, we may feel a sense of relief when we can curate and control our digital lives. But long-term, all the impression management that goes into curation and filtering can make us feel like any approval we get is more for our “brand” and less for us as an authentic human.
The result? The gap increases between what we project and who we actually are, thereby increasing our anxiety about being "revealed."
5. “Compare and despair.”
Finally, by now we all know that social media is the highlight reel. No one posts about not being able to afford the electric bill or getting reamed by the boss. We know the endless parade of pictures of tropical vacations and perfect families is a carefully curated show. But it’s hard not to compare and end up feeling inadequate or defective, which, again, is the heart of social anxiety.
All in all, just like Homer Simpson says of beer, technology may be both the cause and solution to all of life’s problems. Technology makes our lives more certain, convenient, and entertaining, but we lose out on chances to practice coping with uncertainty, inconvenience, and boredom.
The solution? Remember the saying about the mind being a wonderful servant but a terrible master? Same goes for technology. Ironically, a number of excellent online interventions are available for social anxiety, from apps to teletherapy. And according to the research, they work.
Overall, the tide is turning. People are craving real connection. So don’t toss your smartphone, but make room for people. Make time for face-to-face conversation. Before you tell your friend about your week over text, suggest getting together in person (and if you really want to take a risk, go to a real restaurant instead of ordering delivery)!
In short, in addition to using technology for all the good it provides, make sure you’re still interacting with your fellow humans. The date the iPhone debuted into our lives will still be an important date, but maybe it won’t be one that will live in infamy.