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Shedding Irrational Fears About Internet-Based Technology

How we can learn from psychology and history to stop "technology panics."

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels
Source: Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged civilizations around the world with devastating economic, social, emotional, and health effects. But just for a second, let’s imagine how much more demoralizing it would be to live through this period without the internet, and specifically, smartphones, video conferencing, e-commerce, and social media—the digital tools we use for connection.

Obviously, internet-based tools have proved to be invaluable resources in helping us maintain our well-being as we navigate this crisis. For those of us fortunate to have access to them, they have sustained many businesses, while actually growing others, and have helped maintain social connections with loved ones over long distances.

But let’s rewind a bit. Before the pandemic, a very misguided idea had permeated our culture. Millions of people genuinely believed that these digital technologies are simply… bad. They’re “unnatural,” they disrupt “real” social connections, and make people feel miserable. Social media apparently caused disconnection and loneliness. So then why would we willingly, constantly use them? Maybe we’re “addicted,” because such apps are like drugs.

These are false beliefs. And it’s very important to understand why.

Perhaps a silver lining on the tragic COVID cloud is that we’re finally starting to shed the irrational fear of digital technologies. The pervasive negative attitude toward smartphones, social media sites, online games, and other dopamine-activating stimuli is not based on solid science. Instead, this reflects a “moral panic.” Many scholars have made this point before, as I have, but it bears repeating.

Psychologist Amy Orben recently published a comprehensive review article about “technology panics,” along with an explainer video. Based on her synthesis, some clear patterns emerge in how the general public behaves:

  1. New and popular trends emerge. And as they become more widespread, people speak about them in hyperbolic terms (e.g., they’re “taking over,” “addictive,” and “detrimental”). The fears are most prominent for populations perceived to be vulnerable, such as children. A headline exemplifying this exaggerated concern reads, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
  2. Heightened fears often stem from sensationalized stories which, though dreadful, do not reflect most people’s experiences. Perhaps a handful of folks end up experiencing severe trouble (e.g., suicide or violence), and the popular trend is blamed for the tragic event. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of consumers remain unaffected and live their lives normally.
  3. What does the scientific evidence tell us? Studies are conflicting at best, and poorly designed at worst, which can lead to misleading conclusions. Some call it an “epistemic dumpster fire.”
  4. Despite the lack of scientific consensus, there are swift reactions attempting to prohibit usage, or at least reduce the popularity of these trends, including unverified prescriptions based on neuromyths.
  5. These reactionary efforts often fail. Popular usage remains high until social trends eventually change, at which point new games, technologies, or fads rise to replace them and the older ones are forgotten. As enough time passes, they are assumed to be harmless.
  6. Repeat the cycle.

We can see clear examples of this pattern throughout recent history, including radio shows in the 1930s/40s, comic books and rock & roll music in the 1950s/60s, fantasy role-playing games in the 1980s, and hip-hop music and video games in the 1990s/2000s. Hysteria reached peaks during these time periods with handfuls of tragic incidents receiving high profile attention. Dungeons & Dragons was blamed when some teenagers committed suicide. Mortal Kombat and Marilyn Manson’s music were blamed for mass-shootings. YouTube was blamed for political radicalization.

While these are concerning anecdotes, there is thin evidence of widespread negative effects for the vast majority of consumers. Of course, that doesn’t stop the public’s overreaction. States like California attempted to ban the sale of certain video games to minors under 18. And some folks have adopted the practice of “dopamine fasting” which entails limiting not only social media use but also in-person conversations. These actions, while illogical and not backed by science, are perhaps just silly and unlikely to cause lasting harm.

But some people are trying to take advantage of the public’s misguided fears by offering technology addictionrehab” clinics that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, or in-home screen timeconsulting.” As psychologist Andrew Przybylski pointed out, folks running clinics and promoting treatments are profiting off naïve clients. Many profiteers have no formal training in clinical psychology, and their methods are unproven. Their clients may be experiencing underlying psychological illnesses (such as major depression) that are not being treated. This is a major mental health problem.

Przybylski, along with Candice Odgers and other scientists, encourages keeping a historical perspective. We stopped worrying about role-playing board games and rock-n-roll music not because we were confronted with evidence to the contrary, but because society simply moved onto other fads, which gave way to new anxieties. When was the last time you heard someone rant against Dungeons and Dragons or Elvis’s dancing when Twitter remains such a popular target?

In fact, some older adults might even wax nostalgic for the “good old days” before modern innovations allegedly ruined our culture. When we experience so much societal dysfunction and disarray, it’s tempting and perhaps comforting to pine for a simpler era.

But of course, this is an illusion, as people back in those eras had their own anxieties coupled with their own misguided nostalgia. The point is that there was never a golden age for human flourishing, nor was there ever a scientific consensus that radio, comic books, music, or video games were bad for people's mental health or wellness. So nowadays when I hear commentators saying that social media and smartphones are addictive, causing major depression and societal unrest, my BS detector immediately starts going off.

Now, we could learn a valuable lesson from these past mistakes and adopt a more measured tone when discussing newly popular trends. Or we could keep this absurd cycle going into the future. What will be the next technology panic? Perhaps in 10 years, we’ll be lamenting the rise of virtual reality sex robots. Until then, perhaps we should abandon the idea of “screen time” altogether.


Orben, A. (2020). Teenagers, screens and social media: A narrative review of reviews and key studies. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology: The International Journal for Research in Social and Genetic Epidemiology and Mental Health Services.

Orben, A. (2020). The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Orben, A., Dienlin, T., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(21), 10226–10228.

Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(2), 173–182.

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