These symptoms are just a few of the ills associated with the internet’s pervasive cultural presence. As digital platforms becomes evermore integral to daily living, scientists and scholars continue to voice serious concerns.
Furthermore, the full implications of our digital dependence may not be clear for decades to come. Will teens obsessed with social media experience devastating mental health challenges later in life? How will toddlers raised with screens at the fingertips adapt in adolescence and adulthood? If our age is defined by the internet’s many manifestations, will its dangers define our future?
Yet history gives us good reason to view such fears skeptically. After all, new communication technologies have always been accompanied by catastrophic predictions. In the 1930s, journalists bemoaned the influence of radio, wondering whether the airwaves propelled “the anger and neuroses of our time.” In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers posited a link between television and violent tendencies in children, warning that a generation of kids would be more inclined to crime.
These case studies suggest that some of the anxious rhetoric about the effects of the internet may be overblown. And yet, many rigorous studies indicate that we should be worried about how the web impacts our wellbeing.
How can we distinguish legitimate concerns from unnecessary fear mongering? Which digital health concerns are rooted in real research, and which are little more than baseless conjecture?
This article is designed to address these challenging subjects, reviewing the latest scientific findings related to health and happiness in our digital world. By addressing the internet’s various impacts upon our physical and mental wellbeing, we’ll help you make informed choices about how you spend your time online. As we discuss each threat, we’ll also suggest tangible, reasonable steps you can take to manage your risk and make healthy decisions moving forward.
The internet isn’t going anywhere: Even if we’d like to, we can erase the defining technology of our era. But we can choose how to participate in our increasingly connected culture, staying smart about the perils of popular platforms. Keep reading to learn more about staying well in our digital world.
Physical Health Concerns in the Digital Age
Understandably, discussions of digital health often emphasize mental and emotional concerns. But the internet affects our bodies significantly, taking an alarming physical toll over time. Accordingly, we’ll begin our discussion of digital health by addressing the bodily impacts of internet usage. In ways both direct and indirect, the web can threaten our vitality and longevity.
Our digital world presents endless opportunities to consume content – across a stunning array of devices and in nearly any setting. Thanks to social media, you can catch up with friends from the comfort of your couch. Professional activity is equally screen-oriented: Many of us connect and commute virtually, conducting our business almost entirely at our computers.
But there’s a downside to all this convenience and connectivity: As our daily activities go digital, we aren’t very active at all. And when most of our tasks don’t require much movement, the health consequences accumulate quickly.
According to recent research, merely a fifth of Americans are getting the recommended dose of daily exercise. The implications of this trend are unnerving: An inactive lifestyle elevates one’s risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some kinds of cancer.
Sure, these concerns aren’t related exclusively to internet use: Lounging while watching television can be just as problematic. But large scale studies suggest that computer use has exacerbated American’s sedentary patterns, and endless scrolling through Instagram isn’t exactly exercise. Scientists are particularly concerned about how screen time affects children’s activity: App-obsessed youngsters risk developmental delays and obesity across their lifespans.
Clearly, the best medicine for sedentary lifestyle is beginning to get active, incrementally increasing your exercise to create a sustainable routine. In a nod to the digital nature of our age, however, experts suggest combining your workout with online activities. Binge watching Netflix? Try walking on the treadmill simultaneously. Working through your inbox? Try a standing desk while you type away.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, staring at screens for hours on end takes a hefty toll on the eyes. Recent surveys suggest that American adults spend roughly nine hours a day with their eyes glued to digital displays, which strain eyes more quickly than the printed page.
According to optometrists, “computer vision syndrome” is a leading cause of strained eyes nationwide, a reflection of screens’ central place in our culture. Headaches, eye soreness and sensitivity to light are common symptoms.
Even if you’re concerned about straining your eyes while using digital platforms, looking away may seem impossible. If work, leisure and everyday communication all demand devices, how can you possibly avoid overworking your eyes?
While you can’t detach from screens altogether, there are some simple adjustments you can make to ease your ocular load. First, try reducing the brightness level on your phone and computer: The default setting may be creating gratuitous glare.
Second, make sure you screen is an appropriate distance from your face. Experts say your screen should be 20 to 28 inches away from your eyes, with the top of the screen slightly below your eye line. If you’re struggling to see words clearly at that distance, adjust the size on your screen rather than inching closer.
If you do wear glasses or contacts, check that your prescription is up to date. And last but not least, try blinking a bit more often than you do currently. Batting your eyes helps moisten them, reducing irritation and soreness.
Few variables impact overall health more than sleep: Getting too little rest can lead to heart disease, kidney issues, diabetes and strokes. Obesity and immune deficiency are also linked to sleep problems, whereas individuals who get sufficient rest tend to enjoy solid health in general.
Unfortunately, a substantial body of research suggests that digital devices can compromise sleep quality, particularly for individuals scrolling on their phones immediately before bedtime. Researchers say that smartphones and other screens pair stimulation with blue lighting, disrupting the body’s pre-sleep routine. One recent study found that using screens before bed delays drifting off to sleep by as much as 30 minutes on average.
The most effective solution is obvious: If possible, detach from your phone and tablet an hour before bed. If doing so sounds terribly boring, try reading printed materials instead. But if you’re absolutely devoted to bedtime browsing, simply turning down the brightness on your screen may help as well.
Mental Health Concerns in the Digital Age
Like most technologies, the internet’s perils vary dramatically depending upon how it is used. Because digital tools are so versatile, they can be used purposes both productive and destructive, augmenting our wellbeing or undermining our health.
Accordingly, summarizing the mental health impacts of the internet is enormously difficult to do in general terms. Clearly, the concerns we’ll discuss below will impact some users more powerfully than others. Yet they remain relevant to our culture’s discussion of digital dangers, and may well affect you or your loved ones personally. We’ll present each mental health consideration simply and clearly, empowering you to decide how each threat might affect your wellbeing in the digital world.
Before we proceed, however, we need to express an important caveat: While the information we offer may help you make smart choices, this article is no substitute for mental health care. If your thoughts and emotions are causing you pain or making your life unmanageable, seek professional help as soon as possible. Taking care of your mental health takes courage, and we support your efforts to get and stay well.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health concern among Americans, affecting more than 40 million U.S. adults. And while these disorders don’t necessarily involve digital tools, some research suggests that constant connectivity can exacerbate the difficulties of individuals who struggle with fear and worry on a regular basis.
Generally speaking, anxiety is a reaction to uncertainty: When don’t know what will happen, we fear undesirable outcomes. In many ways, digital tools resolve minor uncertainties we face each day: Our smartphones make facts accessible everywhere. From the weather to directions or dinner reservations, there’s an app to make certain what used to be unclear.
But experts suggests there’s a dark drawback to this convenience: Because we have less experience with smaller instances of uncertainty, we’re less prepared to deal with more significant ambiguities. Normal professional, financial or romantic uncertainty can feel devastating, robbing us of the securing we might experience otherwise.
Moreover, digital tools keep us constantly in touch with age-old sources of stress, such as work. Thanks to our smartphones, we’re constantly vulnerable to some new urgent email – a condition that compromises worker’s ability to manage work stress.
Conversely, the experience of being without our phones can be intensely stressful: Without constant connectivity, we feel woefully out of touch. Scientists have coined the term “nomophobia” to describe smartphone separation anxiety, and say its become widespread to differing degrees.
Last but not least, social media opens up new avenues for anxiety, fueled by a sense of ongoing comparison with others. When interpersonal reactions are quantified in comments and likes, feelings of social anxiety can surge. This concern is particularly relevant for younger users, whose relationships are increasingly conducted online.
If you find that your digital activities are contributing to your anxiety, try implementing an incremental approach to digital detachment. Start with a small step, such as putting your phone in another room during dinner, or checking your social media accounts just twice a day. If you fight through the initial discomfort, you’ll find that disconnecting doesn’t end in disaster. In fact, the separation may start to feel pretty serene.
In recent years, researchers have taken note of a disturbing correlation: As social media use increases among adolescents, depression and mood disorders have risen as well. And teenagers are not the only demographic affected, with studies suggesting similar patterns among adults as well.
In one experiment conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018, reductions in social media use correlated with significant improvement on several measures of mental health. The study’s authors made particular note of reductions in feelings of depression and loneliness, which they attributed to a reduction in “FOMO” – or fear of missing out.
For anyone who’s gazed enviously at someone else’s Instagram, this hypothesis may seem intuitive. Social media exposes us to images of others having exciting experiences without us. When we compare our own lives to these curated images, our self-esteem can suffer. We may feel inferior or excluded, and these negative feelings can be reinforced through continued social media use.
Other studies confirm that social media comparisons can contribute to depression, but suggest a more nuanced dynamic. Indeed, some users find joy or connection on these platforms, indicating that social media is not inherently depressing. If you find yourself saddened by your social media experiences, therefore, you might try shifting your perspective before deleting your profile.
First, remind yourself that social media content differs dramatically from reality. People use these platforms present carefully crafted content, rather than their more mundane or lonely moments.
Second, reflect on your intentions before you sign on. If you intend to interact with others or share some part of yourself with the world, more power to you. But if you seek to view others’ profile for purposes of comparison, consider a more positive use of your time. Exercise, for example, had been repeatedly shown to ease symptoms of depression. For a more low-key solution, consider activities such as deep breathing or listening to music – both of which can lift your mood.
In a cruel irony, research indicates that social media can actually reduce our sense of connection to others. As we noted earlier in our discussion of depression, others’ profiles can prompt unhealthy comparisons, causing us to believe that others are more popular. These negative thoughts can set in motion a vicious cycle, causing individuals to further withdraw from the interpersonal connections they do possess.
Moreover, some users begin to replace in-person interactions with digital ones, conducting their relationships almost entirely online. Scholars suggest that this shift sacrifices intimacy: We begin to feel constantly connected yet utterly alone.
Unfortunately, loneliness can perpetuate itself. For example, individuals who feel disconnected from others are often highly sensitive to further social rejection. Accordingly, they may struggle to take positive risks, such as asking a friend to grab dinner or telling someone how they truly feel.
If you’re haunted by feelings of isolation, don’t rely on digital tools to form and strengthen your social connections. Try supplementing your online interactions with in-person experiences, even if putting yourself out there seems daunting. Once you challenge the negative self-perceptions underlying your loneliness, you may find relating to others in person is actually easier that making deep connections digitally.
Dangers of Dysmorphia
Just as social media can prompt negative social comparisons, it can also lead to unhealthy aspirations in the realms of fitness and beauty. Once influencers and other users apply a calculated mix of angles, editing and filters, their images can seem unattainable attractive. For the average user, these pictures can lead to a painful sense of inferiority.
In response to these trends, physicians have developed the term “Snapchat dysmorphia”: Our beauty ideals are continually shaped by the social media content to which we are exposed. Moreover, we’re constantly scrutinizing image of ourselves, wondering why our selfies aren’t quite so stunning.
In the attempt to fulfill these digital beauty standards, some individuals seek unnecessary or unrealistic cosmetic surgeries. Accordinging to experts, such behaviors can be indicative of body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health condition characterized by preoccupation with physical traits that the sufferer perceives to be undesirable.
Similarly, social media can contribute to eating disorders – especially if individuals are bullied about their weight online. Body-shaming is tragically common online, and harsh comments can exacerbate existing insecurities.
If you find that social media makes you feel poorly about your body, know that it can also serve as a source of empowerment. Whole digital communities are dedicated to body-positivity, countering the unrealistic beauty standards progated online. If you can tap into these networks, you may discover that many users feel just as alienated by influencers’ exacting standards.
Scholars and cultural commentators have recently turned a critical eye towards massive tech platforms, scrutinizing the design features underlying their explosive growth. At the root of their complaints is an alarming hypothesis: Digital products are designed to hijack the brain, promoting habitual use.
Indeed, parallels can easily be drawn to other addictive activities. Some researchers suggest that a steady stream of notifications is analogous to gambling: With each new beep or buzz, we compulsively reach for our phones, eager to see what awaits us. In this sense, our phones are like slot machines in our pockets, keeping us enthralled.
On a broader level, the internet can be dangerous in high doses, much like any other source of pleasure. If digital experiences assume an outsized role in our lives, destruction inevitably ensues. In all online pursuits, moderation must be the guiding principle.
While the precise diagnostic criteria for internet addiction remain the subject of heated debate, researchers and mental health providers generally agree on the broad strokes of the disorder. As with other addictive behaviors, problematic internet use entails an escalating pattern of activity that persists despite negative consequences. Additionally, in the absence of this digital activity, individuals experience “withdrawal,” an uncomfortable set of psychological reactions.
In assessing and treating compulsive internet use, differentiating between “normal” and “excessive” patterns of digital activity can be difficult. After all, it could be said that most people are too attached to their phones, or that social media distracts many of us from more essential activities. Similarly, it’s common to feel anxious or bored when away from internet access. Are we all so internet addicted that we’re experiencing withdrawal in these disconnected moments?
Still, many individuals are so compulsively drawn to certain digital pursuits that their behaviors can easily be deemed harmful. Habits or hobbies, once moderate, assume catastrophic proportions, compromising the individual’s quality of life.
One common subcategory of internet addiction concerns video games: Gaming addiction is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, affecting between one and nine percent of gamers. As games becomes ever more immersive and visually compelling, many players become obsessively invested in these fictional worlds, even as their real lives suffer. Isolation, poor work or school performance, and lack of interest in other activities are symptomatic of gaming addiction.
Overall, digital addictions have much in common with other kinds of behavioral addictions: The activities themselves may be commonplace, but the sufferers engage in them to a harmful extent. Ultimately, we must examine our own behaviors in light of our priorities, and address concerns as they arise in our lives.
Creating Connection: The Internet’s Positive Potential
We hope the information we’ve shared helps you assess our digital culture critically, arriving at a new understanding of the risks entailed in your online activities. As new technologies reshape our lives, we must choose to use them responsibly, weighing their costs against their convenience. When we understand the health implications of new and compelling tools, we’re empowered to protect ourselves.
While this article suggests we must proceed with caution, we should also acknowledge the internet’s boundless capacity for good. After all, digital tools can advance our wellbeing, connecting us with resources and information we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. The web can also forge new communities, enabling mutual support across continents. When we pursue better health online, we often find that we’re in good company.
Influence.co believes in the connective power of social media, bringing influencers and businesses into alignment with their audiences. We believe that the key to digital community is authenticity, and we help brands find a more organic way to connect with their customers. Learn more about our work today, and see how we can give your brand’s profile a healthy boost.