Introduction from Joe O’Brien – Creator of @headfirst0:
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog! My name is Joe O Brien, I work in mental health and have experience in clinical and research settings in the UK and Ireland. I’ll be posting more on this topic in the near future on my Instagram page (@headfirst0). I do my best to answer all of my messages on there! Please go and check it out! Joe
Have you ever picked up your phone to check what time it is, opened the screen, closed the screen, put the phone back in your pocket and realised you have no idea what the time is? Or if your phone has run out of battery and you put it in your pocket, only to take it back out again a few moments later and try to unlock it, and you’re reminded the battery is still dead?! Because I certainly have! We are all aware of the huge surge in technology and social media over the past 10 to 15 years, from MSN Messenger, to Bebo, to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, and the list is ever growing! Since the release of the iPhone in 2007, internet access and social media no longer require a computer; it is quite literally at our fingertips. Most of us need no introduction to the phenomenon of technology or social media. However, speaking as someone in the mental health industry, we still don’t know the full extent of the impact of social media and technology on mental health.
We can see that picking up our phones has become so engrained in our brains that it’s almost an automated response, we do it on autopilot. I recently had the eye-opening experience of tracking my daily phone pickups using the Moment app (before the new iOS software on iPhone was released), and it set me a target of 41 pickups for the day – that is picking up and unlocking your phone 41 times or less. I thought this was really achievable and thought I wouldn’t be far off anyway, if I went about my normal day. The result?
I picked up my phone 156 times that day.
Is social media/technology addictive?
So, what have phones and social media done to make checking our phones into such an automated process? There are certainly strong arguments that phones are addictive. For something to be classed as an addiction, it must meet certain criteria some of which include the inability to control usage, the inability to abstain, compulsive use, to have a craving for the use of the item, withdrawal symptoms and for the ‘addiction’ to have negative influence on the person’s life. I’m sure plenty of people reading this will identify with at least one of those criteria! When it comes to phone addiction there are a few theories, but it has been synthesized in a fantastic study by Jon Elhai and his colleagues in 2017.
If we consider the function social media serves, it’s partially a method of receiving social reassurance. Most people, whether they realise or admit it, enjoy getting positive feedback, whatever the medium. On social media, we post a photo, a video, a blog, and the response can be gauged and quantified. People gain meaning from those numbers, whether it be on their own page, or on other people’s platforms. The point is, that we see what people like, and we learn from it by getting positive (or negative) feedback! This is known in psychology as conditioning, which is the process by which our minds learn good and bad behaviours. Getting a reward (such as social acceptance) reinforces the likelihood of engaging in that behaviour in the future (posting on social media)! Similarly, getting negative feedback reduces the likelihood of us engaging in the behaviour, and this concept is common in all areas of psychology/behaviour!
Elhai’s research outlines that compulsive phone use (or addictive phone behaviour) can manifest from different types of conditioning/reinforcement. In the context of social media, it can be seen as a tool to make you feel better (through external validation and social reassurance) when you are feeling low; a way of coping with negative emotions or an escape. So, we may feel unassured or down because of something that happened in our lives, and we might turn to social media to seek reassurance. I remember being a teenager and some people would post derogatory things about their appearance like “I’m so ugly” or “need to lose some weight”. At the time I would think to myself “attention seeker”, but looking back now, it could have easily been a comfort seeking act because many of the comments or replies that would flood in would be of support and assurance! This is the type of social assurance that we can crave if we’re feeling down. It allows others to show support and reassurance, and that makes most if not all of us feel good!
This pathway would be considered negative reinforcement (avoiding the negative feelings by turning to social media for an upturn in mood). But with social media, we also see the impact of positive reinforcement (engaging in a behaviour for the positive reward associated). Elhai writes that “addiction initially develops as a process of mood enhancement, where individuals enjoy, and eventually crave, the positive aspects of the compulsive behaviour such as notification checking”. This means that we learn to enjoy the behaviour of receiving notifications, it’s rewarding to us. But what happens over time is that it conditions us to seek out that reward by checking our phones just in case there’s a notification! So, it’s gotten to the point that we don’t even wait to get the notification, we seek it out. In fact, there are even reports of phantom phone vibrations in people’s pockets, so feeling a vibration of a notification, when your phone never went off at all!
What this type of positive reinforcement does over time, is that it creates a withdrawal when not engaging in that behaviour and leads us to seek out the positive reinforcement (a craving or urge). As I’ve already mentioned, developing cravings for use and experiencing withdrawal is part of the criteria for an addiction! Recent research has investigated the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out), and what it has found is that FOMO is a legitimate concept, that there are related anxiety symptoms when we are separated from our phones. This in itself is the one of the driving forces behind compulsive notification checking. The feelings of withdrawal kicks in, and we want to check our phones just in case you have a new message or notification – we seek out the reward rather than wait for it!
Impact of technology on mental health symptoms
What Elhai’s research broke down and investigated however, is the impact of smartphone usage on depression symptoms, anxiety, stress and self-esteem. To give you the short version of results, smartphone use was significantly associated with depression scores, anxiety scores and stress. An association was not found with self-esteem. Remember that this study measured overall smartphone use, and not specific use of any one social media platform. And to add further context, this research wasn’t just one study, it was a review of several studies combined in the field. This means that as smartphone use went up, so did depression, anxiety and stress! (Note: the research did suggest this could be bi-directional, however, it is evident from other studies that there are visible withdrawal symptoms from excessive smartphone use). We’ve seen from recent research on smartphone use, that there are physical and psychological anxiety/stress responses that are measurable and visible when we’re separated from our phones. What we know from research by Michela Romano and her colleagues, is that we see these symptoms increase as the time away from our smartphones increases, so the symptoms get more significant the longer we are away from our phones! However, what I will say about the research is there are few quality studies, and much of the research is of poor standard, with small participant pools. The reason I am a believer that these results are accurate, is that we can see behaviourally that the results of these studies are being replicated in real life!
In my own experience, I worked with young people who had compulsive like behaviours in relation to their internet/phone use, and witnessing the emotional and behavioural response when in “withdrawal” from their phones was phenomenal. This further engrained my belief that the findings of these studies are applicable to the real world. I would witness increased levels of aggression and emotion, a constant necessity to recheck social media, constant urges to get back online, almost to the point where nothing else mattered to them at that time. Of course, I appreciate that the symptoms are seem mostly in “problematic” phone users which these clients were, and the symptoms I witnessed were likely exaggerated compared to the general population, but at the moment there are no solid criteria to define “problematic”. One of the criteria for defining ‘problematic’, is the user’s phone having a negative impact on the user’s life. Now plenty of people will argue that it doesn’t have a negative impact on their lives, but we know that smartphones are impacting sleep, social connection, isolation, anxiety, depression and stress. If that’s not enough of an impact on the core foundations of mental health, then how bad must it get to be considered problematic?
In a nutshell…
What it looks like, is that excessive smartphone use can exhibit some symptoms that mirror those of an addiction. It can also create real physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, including having an impact on mental health. The research suggests that the higher the usage, the more significant these symptoms may become. Excessive reassurance seeking from others is a prominent symptom in anxiety and OCD. This can cause distress when it becomes problematic and seeking social reassurance is a behaviour we’re seeing in regards to social media. What I will say in relation to social media and mental health, is that we should be cautious with our use of it.
Things to watch out for with technology/social media and mental health:
- Reflect on if it’s impacting your life – do you spend more time on your phone than socialising in person? Are you becoming more isolated because most of your connection is through social media?
- Is it impacting your mood? Causing symptoms of stress/low mood/anxiety?
- Monitor your screen time. Are you wasting precious hours that could be used on things that could lead your life to be more fulfilled? Are you doing all the things you want in your life?
- Are you spending long hours on your phone, even into the night? Is it disrupting sleep?
- Are you getting urges when you’re not engaged in social media?
Take a look at the list and decide whether technology is becoming an issue for you. Be honest with yourself and if it is impacting you, take the necessary steps to improve your mental health!
WHAT an article guys – I want to say a massive thank you to Joe for taking the time to write this piece for my blog (check out the awesome work and content Joe is creating to raise awareness about many mental health issues right here on his Instagram!) I know I’ve learnt a huge amount from reading this article and have already downloaded the Moment app (and one called Offline!) to monitor my screen time, and improve my relationship with my phone. This is definitely going to become a big issue this year as technology advances at such a rapid pace – so we need to take the important steps to safeguard our mental health. Look out for my Podcast episode on my top tips for a Digital Detox this coming Monday – you’ll find my Podcast series here!
We would love to hear you thoughts on this article guys – pop myself and Joe a comment, DM and/or email with your thoughts! I’m @theirishbalance on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook!
Ciara 🙂 x