Evening rolls in and the sky’s orange hue beams through my dining room window. I scramble for my phone and bolt out the door. I drive to the beach, hoping to get the perfect shot for Instagram.
As I post my sunset picture, I inevitably lost the rest of the evening. Because posting the photo doesn’t end the process, it only begins the unceasing cycle of feedback. Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, calls this the “smartphone brain hack.” Smartphones, Harris explains, are designed for addiction and cause anxiety stating: “Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit.”2 We check our phones hoping for a reward and the occasional success keeps us coming back. After a post to Instagram, I check numerous times to see if I got that reward, a like. This feedback cycle causes a physical change in our brain, leading to increased cortisol production. This surge in cortisol causes anxiety and, inevitably, we check our phone to reduce anxiety. Even as I write this, a notification on my phone has caused me to pause.
This hijack leads to what psychologist Jean Twenge labels “the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011”.6 This decline in mental health correlates with the influx of social media, revolutionizing our definition of connection. Advertisements persuade us into believing that technology improves connections; however, if that were true, today’s youth would be happier and less lonely than ever before, which is not the case. The number of teens getting together with friends has been cut in half over the last fifteen years. These in-person connections have been replaced with time spent alone on social media, streaming or texting.6
On average, teens spend six hours a day online. This includes texting, social media, internet, television, and more. These hours online have been found to correlate with declines in mental health; “8th graders who spend ten or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who don’t.”6 This statistic is alarming because it depicts a link between unhappiness and ten hours per week on social media, however, our teens are online over 40 hours per week. So what does this research mean for youth and how can parents help? A campaign called “Wait Until 8th” is currently circulating in an attempt to urge parents to wait until children are 14 to have a smartphone and 16 for internet access.7 While waiting to give children technology is ideal, how can we help those who already have smartphones?
The key to combating the negative impacts of technology is monitoring its use to the recommended two hours per day. However, in the world of COVID-19, technology is an essential tool for work, online learning, and remaining in contact with family and friends. This change in daily life makes it unrealistic to limit the use of technology to two hours per day. In reality, it is likely that the number of hours spent online is currently skyrocketing. This raises concerns about the impact these newly formed habits and increased screen time will have on youth. Perhaps an already distanced generation is learning to see virtual communication as a new normal and even encouraged way of life. If this is the case, then we need to find alternative solutions to combat the negative effects of technology.
If technology increases anxiety, stress, and loneliness then we need to provide time for our nervous system to relax. To recognize when our brains need rest, we must learn to decipher the difference between technology use that is fulfilling, and essential, versus what is a force of habit or self- distraction.1 We must realize that the use of technology and being available 24/7 has our brains in a constant fight or flight mode, “‘We’re wired and tired all the time. Even computers reboot, but we’re not doing it.’”2 Our brains need a chance to reboot and one way of doing so is to spend more time outdoors.
Research conducted at The University of Michigan found that individuals who spend 20-30 minutes per day outdoors have reduced cortisol levels.5 This study included time spent simply being outdoors without technology or work. Time spent in nature helps to reduce stress by allowing the brain to think freely, relax and reset.3
Not only does time outdoors help to reduce stress, but it also provides time to rethink our definition of connection. For many, our idea of connection includes phone calls, texting, or even likes and shares on social media. This new form of connection has distanced us from real relationships, even if we feel “virtually” closer. However, it doesn’t have to alter our relationship with God’s creation, the outdoors.
While technology has, arguably, been the initiation of an individualistic society with less community, time spent outside reconnects youth to the larger world. Research depicts a link between time spent outdoors and individuals feeling more unity with neighbors, being more connected to helping and supporting others as well as having stronger feelings of belonging.4 Therefore, time spent appreciating the world God created helps prompt an outward focus for our lives by helping us to see ourselves as important members of a broader community.
To encourage this practice, youth should plan a designated technology-free time every day, ideally, this time would coincide with time spent outdoors. However, if this is not a possibility with COVID-19, the benefits of nature can still be enjoyed from inside our homes. Research shows that scenes of nature or indoor plants can have a similar effect on reducing anxiety.4 Therefore, we can encourage teens to read by an open window, journal, or stay connected to friends and family by writing a letter. We can teach the importance of staying connected without technology by spending time thinking, noticing, and acknowledging the larger world around us.
By Abby Seay
1 Brody, Jane. “Hooked on Our Smartphones.” NY Times. January 9, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/well/live/hooked-on-our-smartphones.html.
2 Cooper, Anderson. “What is ‘Brain Hacking’? Tech Insiders on why you should care.” CBS News. April 9, 2017. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes/
3 Holmes, Lindsay. “This is your brain on Nature.” HuffPost. August 10, 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/this-is-your-brain-on-nature_n_55bf98fee4b0b23e3ce35d99
4 “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?”. University of Minnesota. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
5 Parker, Najja. “A little dose of nature can drastically reduce stress, here’s why, scientists say.” Boston 25 News. April 5, 2019. https://www.boston25news.com/news/trending-now/a-little-dose-of-nature-can-drastically-reduce-stress-heres-why-scientists-say/937238826/.
6 Twenge, Jean. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy– and completely unprepared for adulthood (and what this means for the rest of us). (p.3, 78). New York, NY: Atria Books.
7 “Why Wait?” Wait Until 8th. waituntil8th.org.