High Anxiety - Study says Social Media Maybe Unhealthy

By Peter Bernstein July 13, 2012

It is Friday the 13th. It is a day for high anxiety for those suffering from Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13. And, while social media has yet to have a phobia named after it (click here for great list of phobias), the time may not be too distant before it makes the list.    

AnxietyUK, a leading anxiety disorder charity, recently concluded a set of studies that looked at the relationship between technology (i.e. computers, mobile phones, smartphones and social networking sites) and anxiety. What they found was likely not enough to cause high anxiety of providers of social networking but certainly makes one wonder about what tech hath wrought.

First there is some good news. Nearly those surveyed use computers and personal devices for “socializing.”  As Nicky Lidbetter, Anxiety UK’s CEO explained, “For many, many people, the rise of technology has been a big help. Technology, particularly social networks, allows people who are housebound, due to conditions such as agoraphobia, the chance to interact with others far more easily than they were able to in the past. That is a really positive development.”

Now for the not so good news, over half of respondents who regularly use social media said their behavior changed negatively.  Big factors cited were:

  • Negatively comparing themselves to others
  • Spending too much time in front of a computer
  • Having trouble being able to disconnect and relax
  • A tendency to become more confrontational online, causing relationship or job problems

Unfortunately, the not so good news keeps on coming, not unlike how the plot unfolds in the popular Mel Brooks movie of 1977, High Anxiety.

 

The study found that 45 percent of people unable to access their social networks or e-mail feel worried or uncomfortable as a result. And the one that is going to likely be the subject of a raft of academic papers was the finding that 60 percent said they felt the need to completely switch off their personal devices to have a break, and one in three of said they switched off several times a day.

Lidbetter noted,  “We were surprised by the high proportion of people who found that the only way to ensure a break from the demands of their devices was to switch them off, as they were not capable of simply ignoring them… If you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed. These findings suggest that some may need to re-establish control over the technology they use, rather than being controlled by it.”

The research could be a bit suspect based on the fact that it included just 298 people who were polled by Salford Business School at the University of Salford, on behalf of Anxiety UK. This research was augmented by interactions on Anxiety UK’s HealthUnlocked community.

My suspicion is that a bigger sample would yield similar findings. Just like the discovery of nuclear fission, social media has and will produce profound positive as well as negative impacts.  Indeed, two of the negative impacts standout as disturbing. 

The trend toward making people more confrontational, including more confrontational than they would be if they were not either anonymous or had to deal with relationship issues in a physical rather than virtual space, is a significant contributor to what many believe is the degradation of civility and human discourse in general which cannot be a good thing. 

Our attachment to electronic umbilical cords that can only be cut by hitting the kill switch is equally problematic. This is not just about people with anxiety disorders but to addictive personalities in general which are likely on the increase as the desire to be tuned in and turned on becomes a 24/7/365 activity. It does lead one to suspect in the future that the ability of smart devices to monitor things like blood pressure and some other metrics for high anxiety will have an app that triggers a cease and desist signal to cut us off. Otherwise, like Pavlov’s dogs we may socialize ourselves into insanity. 

BTW. I am on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and always have a device nearby. I happen to be mildly addicted myself but so far seem to be able to handle it, but the temptations are incredible as we all know. Make me a bit anxious.   




Edited by Brooke Neuman
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