Technology scares us

How technology scares us

4th July 1776: The United States declared independence from Great Britain.

July 20, 1969: People landed on the moon.

November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall fell.

Will we look back on June 29, 2007 as one of those turning points? Only time will tell, but the day the first iPhone came out changed our psyche forever.

Studies, the magazine articles, and tell us that technology makes us more anxious. A new study of over 1 million American high school students found that teenagers who spend more time on screens and less time on off-screen activities like personal contact, exercise, or homework were mentally worse off. In addition, the study found that children who reported a shift to screen-based activities experienced a decrease in happiness followed, implying a cause-and-effect relationship.

But how exactly does that happen? What about the technology that enables it to wreak havoc in our mental states? Here are five top reasons why technology might make us anxious.

1. Technology protects us from small insecurities and makes us vulnerable to the biggies.

Insecurity is the root of fear. We ask ourselves questions and hope that we can rely on something familiar: "What will happen?" "What do you think of me?" "What if that goes bad?"

In a way, technology removes uncertainty. With smartphones we can control our world and our consumption like never before. We can immerse ourselves in a controlled world of our choice for long distances. We can use Google Maps to guide us, read reviews before we spend money on travel or activities, rehearse interview questions with Glassdoor, and review Evites to see exactly who is on the guest list. As a result, however, we track less practice navigating an unsafe world.

You would think that taking away the uncertainty would make us less anxious. Because technology has diminished our experience in dealing with uncertainties, we are less prepared to deal with ambiguities when they arise.

In the meantime, the world has become less safe for the big things - like forging a career and finding love. Secure employment is quickly a thing of the past in the new gig economy. And when we have access to tens of potential partners through services, we are concerned about whether we really have found “the one” or if we wipe out there will be a better match.

You should therefore combine a lack of experience in dealing with small uncertainties with an expansion of large uncertainties. No wonder we feel anxious.

2. Technology enables us to avoid people (and the negative emotions that come with people).

Features and apps make our lives easier and more convenient, but a consequence of this convenience is that it reduces our interaction with other people. For example, I saw an ad on the subway for a grocery delivery service that said, "Satisfy your need for zero human contact."

Sure, we all want to avoid the crowd and no one likes waiting in long lines, but when avoiding people becomes standard we have a lack of experience. For one thing, we don't have that much information about what is likely to happen when we spend time with other people. We therefore forecast worst-case scenarios by default. Second, when we avoid people, our confidence is shaky. We are not sure how to deal with things, consider ourselves cumbersome and step back from future possibilities.

And while we could attribute our hermit-like behavior to misanthropy or extreme introversion, it's probably more than that. What we really avoid are the uncomfortable emotions that come with interacting with people such as awkwardness, fear, boredom, and self-awareness. Practices such as ghosting are the result of bad manners and conflict avoidance. But all the negative emotions that you forego will be transferred to the other person. It's the worst kind of outsourcing.

3. On-screen communication is very different from face-to-face communication.

I'm dating myself here, but remember when email first became popular (or when the internet had white pages?). Experts predicted in the early 1990s that we would spend half of our work week on the time saved with this new device called Electronic Mail.

In practice, however, all of the one-screen communication methods - email, SMS, and social media posting - actually allow us to respond to things that happen on our own schedule. And that takes more time.

What I mean is this: on-screen communication allows time to write, edit, and perfect, while face-to-face communication (or even calling someone - the thing in our pockets is called the phone, after all) is real-time.

Again, it's additive. When we're used to taking the time to think carefully about what to say, we find it harder to do it face-to-face and on the fly. And of course, when there is less real-time experience available, we remain shaky and insecure, which in turn makes us anxious.

4. Social media is a public judgment.

Regardless of the platform, likes, followers and comments are measured so that the world can see them. Public worship or public shame takes place in front of all people. And for teens and young adults who are still figuring out what identity and moral compass they are doing, managing social media can feel like a social crisis.

Social anxiety is a fear of being revealed and judged to be somehow deficient. And social media pushes all these buttons perfectly. In the short term, we may feel relieved when we can curate and control our digital life. But in the long run, all impression management that goes into curation and filtering can make us feel that any approval we get is more for our “brand” and less for us as authentic people.

The result? The gap between what we project and what we actually are widens, increasing our fear of being "revealed".

5. "Compare and Despair."

By now we all know that social media is the highlight. Nobody writes about not being able to afford the electricity bill or about being drilled up by the boss. We know the endless parade of images of tropical vacations and perfect families is a carefully curated show. But it's hard to compare and end up feeling inadequate or deficient, which in turn is at the heart of social anxiety.

All in all, just like Homer Simpson says of beer, technology can be both the cause and the solution to all of life's problems. Technology makes our lives safer, more convenient, and more fun, but we lose the chance to practice dealing with uncertainty, inconvenience, and boredom.

The solution? Do you remember the saying that the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master? The same goes for technology. Ironically, there are a number of great online social anxiety interventions available, from apps to teletherapy. And after doing the research, you work.

Overall, the tide is turning. People crave a real connection. So don't throw your smartphone away, make space for people. Take the time to talk to you personally. Before telling your friend about your week in text, suggest meeting 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 offers, make sure that you are still interacting with those around you. The date the iPhone was introduced into our lives will still be an important date, but maybe it won't be one to live in shame.