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Is the Internet and Social Media Impacting our Mental Health?

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Take a moment and think about the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning.

For most of us, it’s become second nature to reach for our cell phones, either to check the time or to silence the wake up alarm song that’s disrupted our sleep.

Instantly, we are engaged with the internet. Notification bubbles with the number of unread emails displayed on our Home Screen demand our attention reminding us there could be something important we need to check, and before we have even washed the sleep from our eyes our attention is consumed by the ever alluring pull of social media and the internet.

The truth is it doesn’t matter if every email is junk or an advertisement, we feel as though compelled to check in, despite how it makes us check out of reality.

We can brush our teeth while catching up on Twitter, get dressed while we scroll Instagram, and see which college acquaintance is newly engaged (and flooding our Facebook feed with said photos) all before breakfast.

We inherently crave information, our brains are wired to reward us with dopamine when we are absorbing facts. How valuable that knowledge is to us isn’t what is happening. It is the instant gratification in the reward center of the brain that gives us the incentive to keep scrolling, clicking, darting from one thought to the next. This reaction to new information helped us survive in dangerous situations before we even developed tools. Fast forward and here we are with the same response to new information, we are rewarded for quickly discovering many new things.

The problem with discovery is that when we move so quickly from one thing to another we don’t have any time to actually integrate the new information into our long term memory.

So while we may have learned 20 things we didn’t know about birds, if asked even an hour later we might only be able to recall a few things listed in the article designed to grab our attention.

How many tabs do you currently have open?

Will you actually return to that "saved for later" article?

Multitasking only works when the things you are doing don’t require all of our attention, we can pluck strings on a guitar while talking about the weather, because neither requires our full attention nor our complete focus.

What we are learning now is that multitasking

may just be our brain switching quickly back and forth, or our bodies repeating a learned action leaving all of our focus and attention available for any activity which does not disrupt the physical action.

Brain imaging of individuals who spend most of their time engaged in social media and internet use reveals damage to the white matter in the brain equal to that of individuals with drug dependency.

This part of the brain that is impacted is what governs our ability to self regulate as well as make decisions and think rationally.

Internet and Social Media use is currently extremely engrained in our society.

Our primary mode of communication for work and social engagement is, at the moment, through the use of the internet.

The plus side?

It’s made connection on a pandemic possible, and given us the ability to work remotely.

However, this has further blurred the lines between when we are required to be plugged in to do our jobs, and when we are able to disconnect and live in the present.

We need to learn to set boundaries in our relationship to the internet.

It’s proven that the blue light of screens can disrupt sleep patterns as it decreases the natural production of melatonin in our eyes which begins when the sun sets, this can lead to increased mental fog and higher levels of stress and anxiety.

What next?

We don’t have to unplug ourselves all at once.

This week, try replacing your phone alarm with a bedside clock thereby removing the necessity for logging in right when you wake up.

Set aside times when you will be unavailable and disengaged from your phone. For example, from 8-10pm you will place your phone in an area of your home and not check any notifications or mindlessly scroll your night away.

If you think you may be psychologically addicted to your phone or computer, if the WiFi going out for hours gives you a panic attack even if you don’t have work related commitments which require it, try these slight adjustments: track your phone and computer use for the next week.

Consider the amount of time and attention you are giving and examine what you are actually getting out of it.

Feeling bold? Try spending a day without the internet, try a whole weekend.

We are creatures of habit, but we are capable of recognizing when our habits and attachments become unhealthy, and we can change the way we interact with the internet.

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