We have come a long way since the first mass-produced telephones, radios and TVs drastically changed human communication.
Nowadays, we have added smartphones, tablets, laptops and other electronics into the mix. They have revolutionized how we work, communicate and entertain ourselves. The downside is that experts say they are affecting not only our physical health, but our mental health, too. Here are seven ways that is happening:
1. Electronic devices cause a sensory overload that affects our focus and attention
Watching TV for extended periods has long been associated with decreased ability of children to concentrate on lessons and focus on tasks. The fast-moving images and the flickering light from the screen hit the brain with a sensory overload. The brain goes into overdrive as it struggles to process the fast-paced images flitting across the screen. This overstimulation is a bit similar to how narcotics excite the brain.
When the brain is overexcited repeatedly, it becomes unable to focus on normal-paced activities. It flits from one thought to another, shifting interest from one activity to several, all at a very fast pace, resulting in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The fast-paced computer games that require quick action and counteraction, and the frantic texting that young people can’t do without, have only worsened the situation.
For children who are constantly engaged with these electronic devices, you could say that their brains got used to a fast-paced digital world, and they find the real world all too slow to cope with. The exponential increase in ADHD in children in recent years — 800 percent increase in the period between 1980 and 2007 — cannot be considered a coincidence.
2. Mobile phones and social media drive obsessive compulsive behavior
Performing repetitive actions out of compulsion is typical of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a debilitating mental disorder. Repeated hand washing, checking doors and rearranging things are some of the common compulsive actions. New compulsions brought about by electronic devices, such as constant checking of messages texting, and social media, now add to the list, according to a University of Arkansas study.
OCD was earlier thought to result from a deficiency of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, but now it is considered a problem with the brain pathway connecting areas involved in planning and those associated with action. It is not clear whether OCD is the result of excessive electronic use or it is the cause of compulsive behavior related to the use of electronic gadgets.
Brain scans have revealed gray matter atrophy (brain degeneration) resulting from gaming and Internet addiction to occur in the frontal lobe of the brain. It is interesting to note that this is the area in the brain that governs planning and impulse control. Could this be just a coincidence again?
3. Electronic devices and Internet use promote addictive behaviors
Internet and social media have spawned a number of new addictions, such as online shopping, gaming and gambling, cyber relationships, cyber-sex and pornography. In this case, the electronic media could be just a facilitator. The root cause of these addictions may lie in other psychological problems such as anxiety, depression or previous addictive behavior these users have.
But the difference is that gaming portals and social networks offer some measure of anonymity to users; they can easily create alternate identities to indulge in addictive behavior. This is making people bolder and more aggressive in pursuing their addictions. At the same time, the cycle of temporary exhilaration and the guilt feeling that follows when a person indulges in his/her cyber addiction can be as damaging to the psyche as any real world addiction. But cyber addictions can go unnoticed and unchecked.
4. Electronics make people incapable of connecting with others
The short, crisp, communication through texting and over other social media applications is highly sanitized and devoid of natural emotions despite the use of emoticons. Once a person gets used to it, face to face communication in real life may seem melodramatic, and can make one feel uncomfortable interacting with people directly, studies show.
Inability to decipher nonverbal cues in conversations is another problem with youngsters who spend more time in the virtual world than in real life. People with social anxieties may completely avoid face to face interactions and become social recluses.
The inordinate amount of time spent on electronic devices, be it watching video clips, chatting with friends, playing games or simply surfing the Internet, reduces the time people spend on tangible relationships and real life issues. This can cause discontent in the family and lack of intimacy in relationships.
5. Dependence on electronics results in loss of spatial abilities and creativity
When we don’t exercise our skills, they are lost. People used to carry a mental map of places in their head before GPS trackers took over. Now many drivers and trekkers are completely dependent on these devices to tell them how to reach their destination.
Opportunities to use creativity and improvisation skills are increasingly taken over by technology, harming our ability to create, according to studies. For instance, when essays can be put together by a cutting and pasting of random thoughts, the ability to think and plan in logical sequence is lost. When spelling and grammar are left for computer programs to self-correct, we tend to become less proficient in the language we use.
6. Too much exposure to electronic device screens may lead to depression
The blue light emitted by the screens of electronic device is the culprit here, studies show. It is one of the colors that make up the daylight. Excess exposure to this light has been linked to retinal damage that could potentially lead to macular degeneration.
But that’s not all. Night time exposure to blue light can suppress melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep. When melatonin is suppressed, your sleep cycle becomes irregular. Depression is just one of the mental health risks associated with irregularity in sleep.
7. Electronic gadgets implicated in disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
This behavioral problem is characterized by constant irritability in children and adolescents aged 6 -18 years. Some children who spend inordinate amounts of time with electronic gadgets are found to be prone to this condition. They remain irritated with adults as well as other children for no apparent reason. They often have angry outbursts for frivolous reasons, their reaction always disproportionate to the issue at hand.
The temper outbursts of children with DMDD are similar to the temper tantrums commonly seen in children younger than 6 years, but much more severe in duration and intensity. It was earlier referred to as childhood bipolar disorder because of its parallel with this psychological disorder occurring in older adults. About 2-5 percent children are estimated to be having this condition.
Do we have a remedy for the mental health problems caused by electronics?
Electronic gadgets are here to stay despite their adverse effect on human health, just like the plastics, pesticides and polluting vehicles. Total abstinence is not practical, but we need to control our use of electronic media rather than allowing it to control our lives. The best we can do is to reduce our dependence on them.
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, sums up all the negative mental health effects of electronic media as Electronic Screen Syndrome. She advocates an electronic fast for two weeks or more to partially reverse the damage. Rediscovering the joy of cultural and sporting activities that bring people together in real life may help us overcome our addiction.
Do you agree or disagree? What would you add to the list? Share your thoughts in the section below: