Technology is an amazing thing. It connects people at any time, in any place - in an instant. It is becoming increasingly enmeshed in our everyday life, with the latest advances in augmented reality adding extra dimensions to that enhanced sense of connectivity.
The irony of this is that while we excel at connecting with multitudes quickly and easily, albeit superficially, real life human connectivity is becoming increasingly distant. It begs the question, how close are we to our family and friends? And how is it shaping the way that young people will interact with others in later life? Perhaps more importantly, how is this increasingly virtual world of human interaction affecting our minds and mental wellbeing?
One thing we do know is that the constant use of technology is actually rewiring our brains. In 2012, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that the brain chemicals of people who habitually used the internet had abnormal connections between the nerve fibres in their brain, changes deemed similar to those seen in people with other addictions, including alcohol.
Simply having a phone in your hand can affect the quality of a face-to-face conversation with another person, according to researchers at Virginia Tech. For their 2014 study, ‘The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices’ they observed 100 friendly couples having a 10-minute conversation while their phone was present. They continued to fiddle with their phones. Without a phone present, conversations between the same couples had greater empathy.
Sadly, it seems that connecting with the virtual world rather than the person sitting next to you is becoming the norm. Whilst on holiday, during breakfast, psychotherapist Catherine Asta Labbett recalls watching a mother and daughter mumble a few words to each other whilst eating their breakfast before they both picked up their iphones and began 'phubbing' each other.
She says: “As a psychotherapist, I'm all about talking, storytelling and connecting and I'm super observant when it comes to human behaviour, so for me, watching a mum and daughter, who are sharing some precious holiday time together and phubbing each other, in favour of their Facebook friends, was hard.
“I'm no technophobe, I fully embrace the digital world. My iPhone helps me to connect with people all over the world and helps to grow my business. However, from the couple sat having a coffee in a local cafe, the family out for dinner, the school children walking home from school, the ‘izombies’ you bump into in the shopping centre - they are all missing out on the magic of real life conversation.”
We also know that digital connectivity can have a powerful positive influence on mental health and wellbeing, increasingly so as we get older. Research conducted by London Bridge Hospital revealed that computers can be especially valuable as a method of learning and communication for older people suffering from other disabilities, which may limit their ability to get out and about. The use of digital devices enable even the most housebound individual to take part in activities that provide mental stimulation, which can enhance memory and mental wellbeing.
For many people, however, it is the ability that technology brings to connect with hundreds or thousands of people that creates a feel good factor, and a sense of belonging, but can too much of a good thing be bad for your mental health?
“The dopamine hit from the ping of your phone is powerful,” says Steven Hess, a trustee of The Startup Leadership Program, a global not for profit business education programme and network. “Phones buzzing, clicking or chiming are strong draws and demand our attention instantly. But are we really built for always-on-on-demand call connectivity?
“We all want to belong, and having messages arriving helps us to feel wanted. Many are superficial and while we have instant gratification the effects are short lived, leaving us wanting more. For some this can create a state of constant self-assessment and comparison.”
Certainly technology has created new freedoms and new challenges; the freedom to have a global multi-cultural network of contacts, whether social or professional, yet it is easy to become overwhelmed with the volume of communication, making it difficult to separate what is actually important for what seems urgent.
“Who knows, we will probably rely on another technology solution to solve the problem created by a technology solution,” adds Hess.
The extent to which digital connectivity impacts the state of people’s mental health and wellbeing also depends on their natural predilection for human contact. Some people prefer to be loners rather than team players, at work and in many other aspects of their life; and may be unaffected by a greater reliance on technology to stay connected to the rest of the world.
Ultimately, to make the most of exciting new digital technologies without compromising normal non-digital human interaction we need to strike a balance and set some boundaries.
Catherine Asta Labbett says: “Create some 'protected places' where devices are just plain unacceptable. Start with the dinner table. Put your phone away and give the gift of your time and presence to the people you are choosing to spend your time with. Talk, connect, share stories, and simply appreciate the human-to-human magic. Ditch the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in the digital world. You can't re-live real life moments and experiences, but you can always scroll backwards in the digital world.”