We live in the Information Age. Compared to all previous historical periods, the world economy is no longer dominated by material goods, but rather data and information. Our society is one where billion-dollar companies arise from thin air because of their ability to create services through information technology (IT). Uber Technologies created an expansive delivery/transportation service through a mobile app, despite the fact that the company doesn’t own any vehicles. Additionally, Airbnb has made a prominent overnight accommodations corporation without owning any buildings. These business endeavours are just the tip of the iceberg of how IT is drastically changing our lives.
From an economist’s perspective, the economy is expanding rapidly. The term ‘attention economy’ has been coined to refer to how much digital content we consume, whether it be Netflix, YouTube, or social media. With our attention spread across so many outlets, the ‘attention market’ has become much more competitive and is sometimes overbearing.
From a healthcare perspective, this competition for attention certainly does not make it easier to manage our mental wellbeing. That’s right: our own health is challenged by IT. Healthcare has significantly improved with the adoption of the biopsychosocial model, a model that acknowledges the interwoven pieces of health: biological/physical, psychological, and social. Although they are measured differently, each piece comes together to form our overall health. But when it comes to factors that influence these pieces, IT remains one of the trickiest parts of the puzzle. Looking at the psychological and social aspects of health, unfiltered exposure to social media can trigger both negative and positive reactions, which can add up over time, especially considering people spend an average of two hours a day on social media.1
This shouldn’t be a surprise considering online/text messaging has a fully developed diction, from “LOL” to GIFs and emojis. Heck, there’s even an emoji movie and stuffed poop emojis you can get at the dollar store. These patterns help to reveal how our culture thinks and behaves.
There are many studies that seek to understand the effects that social media has on people, drawing seemingly contradicting results. Some studies have demonstrated how social media activity can help provide the information and guidance people seek to improve their lives. For example, there are countless YouTube channels and websites promoting healthy living for different audiences. Experts have noted how the presence of these outlets has increased productive health behaviour.1
By contrast, another study surveyed teens turning to social media in times of anxiety or depression and discovered that 15% of respondents experienced their symptoms worsening.1 Although 15% is a minority, it does raise the question: how can we provide the tools for young people to cope properly, as opposed to turning to something that will only perpetuate their feelings of stress?
It’s important to understand that these studies don’t inherently negate each other’s results or conclusions. Rather, the seeming contradictions reveal how complex the issue is and make it clear that we should refrain from adopting a “one size fits all” mentality. Social media does not just impact our perceptions of ourselves — it also creates a complex new way to socialize. Because humans are social beings, this medium has sucked our generation in to the point where we may spend more hours in front of a screen than with our friends or family. This has caused many complications for our social psychology, specifically regarding mannerisms with person-to-person communication and language. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey identified how young people are falling behind in skills related to interpersonal communication, motivation, and critical thinking.
There are also more acute interpersonal issues that are linked to increased social media and IT use. For example, Dong Nguyen, creator of the infamous mobile game Flappy bird, received death threats over Twitter and was blamed for ruining people as the game’s mechanics tended to frustrate users at a higher rate than most games. This situation is no different than other cases of cyberbullying. Hiding behind a computer screen makes people feel less responsible for what they do and say, which is a root cause of cyberbullying.
Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., psychiatry professor at Oregon Health & Science University, stated in a press release:
"Research has long-supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people's mental health. But this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression. We found that all forms of socialization aren't equal. Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression."
So, what can we take away from all of this to support our own mental wellbeing? First, when it comes to the content we consume, it is insufficient to engage cyberspace without a filter. We must be cognizant of how technology can affect our thinking. Further, we must be cognizant of the difference between online and in-person relationships, specifically regarding the need to prioritize our in-person social lives. IT, and social media in particular, doesn’t have to hurt our mental wellbeing. As long as we are aware of potentially negative impacts and approach our consumption in a thoughtful way, we can experience its benefits and mitigate its harm.