Depression. It pops up in the news, especially when we lose celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. For a few days or a few weeks, there will be caring and compassionate conversation around their losses and the causal factors surrounding their suicides. News anchors, reporters, and experts are disclosing explanations around mental illness, past and present struggles with addiction, and various relational, financial, professional and personal life stress factors. All of these are important. They should not be minimized. At the same time, as statistics illustrate a dramatic increase in depression and suicide rates since 1999, it is also important to consider environmental and social influences.
With our reliance and dependence upon electronic devices dramatically increasing for communication, entertainment, and social interaction, are we becoming more disengaged from one another – more detached from human connection – and thus more isolated and depressed?
Many experts say YES.
In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2018), professor and researcher Dr. Adam Alter describes one of the consequences of increasing usage of mobile devices: “Up to 59 percent of people say they’re dependent on social media sites and that their reliance on these sites makes them unhappy. Of that group, at least half say they need to check their sites at least once an hour. After an hour, they are anxious, agitated, and incapable of concentrating.” Just recently, well-known TV producer Simon Cowell, reported that after giving up his Smart Phone for 10 months, “It absolutely made me happier,” and he was able to concentrate more fully.
Because of his strong ethical compass and his dedication to discovering healthier ways to interact in this digital age, former Google product philosopher Tristan Harris founded two organizations: Time Well Spent and the Center For Humane Technology. In Harris’ words, with Time Well Spent, “We want technology that cares about helping us spend our time and our lives well – not seducing us into the most screen time, always-on interruptions and distractions.” And in joining with Common Sense Media, the mission for The Center For Humane Technology’s is “To reverse the digital attention crisis and realign technology with humanities best interest.” With both organizations, the goal is to help us all rediscover the health benefits of meaningful in-person interaction and human connection.
In Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (2017), psychologist and researcher Dr. Jean Twenge reports: “Teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy; and those who spend more time on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. There’s not a single exception: all screens are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness” (page 77-78). In outlining the results of one of many studies (page 82-83), Dr. Twenge states: “…the link between screen time and mental health issues is distressingly clear: teens who spend more than three hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more like to have at least one suicide risk factor.” Although Dr. Twenge is quick to recognize the benefits of teens feeling connected to one another even when they are apart, she has also uncovered that indirect connection “…doesn’t assuage their loneliness; in fact, they are lonelier than they were just five years ago. A stunning 31% more 8th and 10th graders felt lonely than in 2011, along with 22% more 12th graders. Teens are now lonelier [more isolated] than at any time since the survey began in 1991” (page 97).
Thus, it is not surprising that in February 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines to screen children for depression: pediatricians are to screen all children 12 years and older for depression. In a recent article by Melanie Michael, “It turns out, teenagers are on the front lines when it comes to battling mental illness. According to experts, one in five teens is clinically depressed. In addition, two out of three teenagers with depression go undiagnosed.”
On their website, Healthy Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains why overuse of digital media and screens may place your child or teen at risk of the following:
- Sleep problems
- Problematic Internet use: Internet gaming disorder and increased risk for depression at both high and low ends of Internet use.
- Negative effect on school performance
- Risky behaviors
- Sexting and privacy and predators
- Cyber bullying
The AAP outlines their recommendations for usage (from birth – teen years) and provides families with an amazing tool for creating healthy guidelines and balance in their media usage –Family Media Plan.
In the past dozen years that I have been researching, writing, and speaking about cyber bullying and screen dependence, every expert agrees that although we cannot ban technology from our lives, we can learn to balance it. However, it is not enough to reduce screen time. We must learn to replace our screen time with face-to-face interaction and activities which promote a sense of acceptance, belonging, and empathic connection. We cannot know if our children, family, loved ones, friends, or colleagues are hurting when we are so consumed with our phones that we do not “see” the other person. We must be willing to put down our phones long enough to look deeply into their eyes, converse with them, listen to them, and be available for them. Their lives may depend on it.
I leave you with a beautiful video which illustrates how individuals are starved for meaningful connection and how easy it is to rediscover it.
The Art of Human Connection – Ivan Cash
For parents, guardians, and for those entrusted with the care of our children, you are encouraged to pick up a copy of Power Down & Parent Up: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech- Healthy Children. You are not alone. Help is here.
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”