Staying mentally well in the digital age

Written by
David Cliff

19 May 2016

19 May 2016 • by David Cliff

A double edged sword

Recent studies suggest many have difficulty sleeping when using social media last thing at night. 

Modern technology gives us simultaneously the blessing and curse of immediacy of availability on a 24/7 basis into our bedrooms, if we permit it. Years ago, the telephone was the last point of contact into one’s own private residence and there were social rules about disturbing people later in the evening, except in emergencies. Now, no such social “fire break” exists.

One’s social presence and standing on such platforms requires regular maintenance. Equally, the minutiae published there on people’s lives can increase information overload as people describe tiny points of their day in ways that would never have occurred hitherto. Even valuable information passed around, shared or re-tweeted, can contribute to a sense of overwhelm. Add to that SMS messages and a ringing phone.

The younger generation don’t have the normal social boundary  that preceded them, of going home to family and bed in the evening after a spat with mates. They instead find minor disputes, or the need to be part of the group, are escalated once they are home. Typically this easily runs well into the early hours of the morning, causing agitation at a time we evolved to seek rest.

We must also be aware that social media is a mixture of connectivity with both people and the markets those people occupy and, therefore, typical friendship exchanges are mixed with pure business 24/7. It’s often hard for some to tell the two apart and the term “friend” acquires new connotations that are altogether shallower and less enduring than many of the people one enjoys meeting for coffee, or perhaps has known since school or a first job etc.

Sleep deprivation

It’s a fierce mix when this technology coalesces to prevent us sleeping. We know that poor sleep is positively correlated with anxiety and depression. We can’t lay the responsibility for this totally at the door of social media, let’s face it, we’ve come through recessions, we’re facing years of unprecedented austerity and young people have fewer life chances in the world of work than has been the case for generations. It is, however, one tangible area where one really can take control and mitigate the harm.

Technology contributes to this. In addition to the stimulation, conflicts, information overloading etc. that occurs with the media, people often take tablets and mobiles to the bedroom. Ever used an iPad and seen the rectangle for half an hour afterwards? Add to that the typical stimulus-response conditioning that occurs through the use of devices; is there a message for me? We then expect to drop it to the side of the bed and achieve sleep. I’ve got news, it isn’t going to happen.

Social media’s ease of use and ubiquity means we very rarely allow ourselves down time to reflect quietly. The more-for-less work and business culture we live in actively militates against us having quiet moments. 

Tribal instincts

As a social animal, we wish to be in the tribe, connecting with people is important. The immediacy of technology requires responses, however, now very much has a “be there or be square” feel, almost as if one is missing out if one cannot apply one’s commentary or instant response to something that is shared. 

I foresee a whole new genre of psychiatric disorders ahead. How about “social media anxiety syndrome”, replacing current “social anxiety disorder”, or “Twitrettes” syndrome, the tendency to post inappropriate comments in text form that is purely involuntary. Or how about “post trollmatic stress syndrome”,  or “Levinson’s  disorder” where one constantly gets hacked off with life. The list can go on, leave it to the psychologists to refine this.

We are diurnal creatures with rhythms evolved to the rising and setting of the sun and approximately ninety day cycles relating to the seasons, hard wired into us long before the first clock ticked and the first thermionic valve glowed. They don’t change because of these technologies and need to be respected. We need disciplines that balance our use of technology alongside our human condition.

Sleep, for example, requires a combination of healthy ritual and discipline to be refreshing, fulfilling, maintain our emotional state, our closest relationships, and make sound decisions, not just “fitted in”.

Setting guidelines

We must stop being anxious of missing something and be the controllers of the devices we use, not reactive creatures, responding to a stimulus. There are some tips for this:

1) Protect your sleep at all costs

2) Be unavailable sometimes: The world won’t stop because you can’t respond immediately

3) Take time to reflect: Our best decisions need to be at by a process of reiteration 

4) Value human contact: Our most authentic relationships come from situations where we can assimilate all the subtleties of others’ communication. We coin “press the flesh” for a reason

5) Develop regular habits: Perhaps look at emails, Facebook etc, two to three times a day, not as they occur.  Sift the junk, get out of memberships; junk emails; subscriptions and other things that you have got wound into but don’t use. A little house cleaning reduces clutter in any environment, including cyber space 

6) Read books: They allow our visual imagined processes to flourish, rather than having these defined by photographs and pictures online, they require a concentration span longer than most online texts and the rhythmic movement of eyes back and forward across the page actively assists subconscious processing

7) Keep technology out of the bedroom. 

As we get increasingly closer to technology, we must find rules of engagement that continue to allow our humanity to somehow prevail through all of this so that it becomes an enhancement of our living experience rather than something that detracts from who we are.