Is Social Media Killing Us?

This week's blog post was inspired by two reports I saw over the past few days on Good Morning America concerning the negative effects of widespread and prolonged smart-phone and social media usage. The first was a study conducted at a university (not sure which one). The reporter and two female college students were strapped with electrodes and sensors then seated in front of a TV monitor. Prior to the start of the study, all three subjects were told that their vital signs would be monitored while they watched a video about test anxiety. They were also asked to give up their smartphones prior to the start of the experiment. The real purpose, however, was to monitor the subjects' physiological responses to their phone's audio signal that a text or social media post has been received. With the subjects all hooked up to wires and told to keep their focus on the TV screen, the devices were placed out of their reach during the experiment, but close enough that they could hear their phone's signal.

Every time the phone signaled that a text or post had been received, the subject's blood pressure, breathing rate and sweating all increased- the only difference was one of degree, with one female student having the biggest response. The study indicated that people who regularly use texting and social media and are conditioned to read/respond to the communication right away, are clearly showing physiological signs of anxiety of not being able to immediately respond to the text or post. The study shows (many more test subjects were monitored for the full experiment- for time sake GMA only showed the reporter and two students) that individuals that regularly use smartphones for texting and social media are being subjected to anxiety on a frequent basis. As one of the study authors stated, these smartphone users are regularly exposed to "stress hormones" e.g. adrenaline and cortisol, which have negative effects on the body, especially the heart. Members of the millennial generation, which have grown up becoming so attached to their smartphones, are literally acting like guinea pigs- it will be interesting in 30 years or so to see what effect this technology-induced anxiety has on the health of individuals, including heart disease rates and fatality rates.

The second report was on the incredibly sad story of Madison Halloran, a 19-year-old college student and track athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, who committed suicide, and is the subject of the book What Made Maddy Run by ESPN journalist Kate Fagan. The GMA report indicated that though Maddy had so much going for her- good grades, an athletic scholarship to an Ivy League school, a loving, supportive family, and by all outward appearances, seemed to be happy and adjusting well to college life. But in reality, she was suffering silently from worsening anxiety and depression. The author of the book indicated that while her posts on Instagram and Facebook always showed the positive things in her life, her mental illness was exacerbated by the pressure of keeping up with appearances of being a perfect student-athlete on social media and ultimately contributed to the taking of her own life. Most people who regularly post photos and messages on social media sites, only share positive experiences e.g. vacations, parties, milestone achievements etc., and don't share the bad or sad things in their lives. Thus, for many people, if a "follower" were to merely look at an individual's social media posts, that person would seem to be leading an idyllic or at least very happy life, when in reality, the individual may well be masking significant anxiety, depression or other mental illness. I'm certain Maddison Halloran is not alone- how many other young, vulnerable people are there in our modern society, virtually addicted/obsessed with social media, who are suffering from technology-induced anxiety/depression and have attempted/committed suicide?

Now don't get me wrong. I am not some stodgy, technology-averse person. I grew up during the 1970s/'80s, the period when cable TV, VCRs and home computers were first exploding in popularity. Listening to music is one of my favorite pastimes and I have progressed from vinyl records in the late 1970s, to cassettes in the '80s to CDs in the '90s (I have over 200 CDs and that is still my preferred medium for listening to albums rather than Internet streaming) to DVDs and YouTube videos in the past decade. I had Atari during my early-mid-teens and graduated to Nintendo in my late teens, but I never let video games get in the way of schoolwork and on most days when the weather was nice I was always outside playing, whether two-handed touch football in the street, shooting hoops, baseball, softball, tennis etc. Nowadays video games, especially Internet-based games, are so immersive and life-like that gamers play for hours on end. That first GMA report I mentioned earlier in this blog post referenced a survey that showed millennials are using their smartphones an average of over six hours a day! I am not staunchly anti-technology, yet that seems utterly ridiculous and harmful.

I will end this post with a couple passages from my book The Lost Son: A Rock 'n' Roll Road to Redemption. The first was triggered by my meditations while experiencing the remote wilderness of Canyonlands National Park, and the second was spurred by the sight of a simple 19th century log cabin located in a desolate section of Arches National Park, both in Moab, Utah:

Squatting on a flat speck of rock overlooking the canyon, totally isolated from any other person, I finally found the solitude I had long been seeking. It was there that I appreciated just how far removed humankind has become from the harsh, gritty reality of the natural world. As I stretched out on that plateau and basked in the warmth of the sun’s golden rays, I pondered how modern man has grown so intelligent and arrogant, his technology so advanced, that he has committed the ultimate sin: believing that he is a god. If God created the universe, man has constructed his own artificial world, with skyscrapers and superhighways, DVRs and ATMs, pollution and overpopulation. In this artificial world, we have lost sight of what is real. Humans long for a return to the natural state, which is why parks are built in the middle of cities, wealthy people move into posh suburbs miles away from dingy urban centers, and hearty folks go camping in the woods. But we are never far from the conveniences of modern civilization; even at campgrounds, electrical outlets, cable TV jacks and clean, full-service washroom/shower facilities have been erected for those who refuse to live any other way.

In the natural beauty, yea reality, of Elephant Canyon, I hypothesized that the rapid “progress” of humankind might be advancing too fast for our own good. Americans, in particular, have landed men on the moon, unraveled the complex mysteries of genetics, and sparked a revolution in the way human beings communicate, work and play through all sorts of technological breakthroughs. But at the same time, we appear to be forgetting where we came from and who we are. Our hubris continues to grow exponentially in lock step with our industrious wherewithal, leading us to damage the environment like no other species that has ever lived on this planet. Each day, we are losing a little bit more of the reality that only exists in the natural world. Perhaps someday soon modern man will pay in some way for his haughty decadence, and like the great civilizations of the distant past, our society will be struck down at the peak of its influence and reduced to ruins. One may scoff at this apocalyptic vision, but I doubt the ancient Greeks and Romans saw the end of their cultural reign coming either.

The sight of that antique structure also induced me to reflect on how much western civilization has changed in the 20th century, especially in its latter half. For children and young adults, who have grown up taking for granted color TVs, satellite dishes, personal computers, cellphones, microwave ovens and many other high-tech gizmos, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend a time when all these conveniences of modern life did not exist. However, it really wasn’t that long ago that people lived a much simpler life. My maternal and paternal grandparents were members of that unimaginably deep-suffering generation that came of age during the Great Depression and had to eke out a meager existence in that dark period of devastating economic plight. But while life was immensely more difficult back then, that generation at least knew the value of hard work and close family ties. In startling contrast, today’s youth have been softened‒and paradoxically isolated‒by modern technology, which has undoubtedly made life easier in numerous ways, but has also fostered an unprecedented degree of laziness, including moral shortcuts, in our society.

Keep in mind I wrote these passages nearly 18 years ago, and they are as relevant, if not more so, now than on the day I wrote them. It is also why I carry a simple flip cellphone. I have no interest in owning a smartphone where I would be constantly tethered to the Internet and social media. I may be in the minority these days, but that is how I prefer to roll and these two academic studies show evidence that it is indeed healthier.

#GoodMorningAmerica #smartphones #socialmedia #anxiety #depression #suicide #heartdisease #MadisonHalloran #TheLostSon

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.