How to stay sane amid social media
Article Published by: economist.com
MORE than 300m people suffer from depression around the world, and another 260m people suffer from anxiety. Technology and the constant cacophony of modern life are cited as the main causes of the increasing prevalence of mental illness.
After falling into depression aged 24, Matt Haig, a British writer, has used the experience to write about mental health. “Reasons to Stay Alive”, published in 2015, was his story of trying to cope with mental illness. His latest book, “Notes on a Nervous Planet”, focuses on overcoming anxiety, notably the angst from the constant stream of social media.
Mr Haig examines modern assaults on mental health with personal anecdotes and lists of ways to stay sane. The Economist’s Open Future initiative asked him questions about how the world should respond to the new mental-health crisis. His replies are followed by an excerpt from the book.
The Economist: More than 260m people experienced an anxiety disorder in 2016. Is the prevalence of anxiety getting worse or is the world simply more aware of mental health?
Matt Haig: People think that the anxiety figures and statistics should be slightly mistrusted because of the conversation we are now having about mental health. People feel more comfortable talking about it, so it might be the case that people are more aware of it. I would feel much more comfortable talking about it now than 20 years ago. But if you really break down the statistics, the sharpest rises in the last decade are in areas that are still heavily stigmatised, like eating disorders, personality disorders and self-harm. NHS admissions for eating disorders in the last decade have doubled. There are also specific problems related to contemporary society. Various aspects of modern life have an effect on mental health: social-media addiction, tech use, even walking around a shopping centre.
The Economist: What role does technology play in creating a more anxious society?
Mr Haig: No one would be able to deny that we’re in a period of profound change, even in the last ten years. People are living differently, meeting people differently, communicating with their friends in a different way, going outside less, sleeping differently. All these fundamental things are slightly changing because of technology. Change itself is unsettling—we know this on a personal level. Technology has always been behind that shift in human development.
Ultimately we feel the need for some sense of responsibility from social-media companies, and other companies. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone not to eat fast food or ice cream, but we all understand that if we sat in bed for six hours eating ice cream non-stop on a Saturday, that would probably have some health consequences.
It is not the technology itself that is the problem. It is our lack of awareness about how it is changing our lives and affecting our minds. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to. The next stage is becoming a little bit more aware of how it affects us.
The Economist: Many people are aware that social media plays a role in exacerbating depression and anxiety—so what keeps people tethered?
Mr Haig: New data says that young people aged 16 to 24 are the loneliest generation and yet they’re the most connected there has ever been. Social media is definitely contributing to loneliness, but it also creates that craving for connection through social media at the same time. With social media there’s never any sense of satisfaction or completion. You always want more of it, but it never gives you what you want.
I definitely fall into that trap. Each social-media company has its own toxic issues. Twitter has trolling and political polarisation. Instagram’s problems are to do with self-esteem, body image and comparing yourself to other people. Snapchat is bad for teenagers who might feel insecure about their friendships and it has issues with online bullying.
The Economist: Aside from technology, what are the other ways in which modern society affects mental health?
Mr Haig: We seem to be less happy with what we have. We have solved so many problems, yet we are creating new ones at a faster rate. For most of us in the developed world, we have running water and a roof over our head. Yet paradoxically, we are the most stressed that we have ever been, and as anxious as we’ve ever been.
There are a lot of problems with consumer culture and our levels of happiness. The advertising industry tries to make us feel a lack, or anxious about something, using “FUD”—which stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Anti-ageing cream capitalises on the fear of looking like you’re ageing. Our fears are being exploited all the time.
We are constantly shifting our own goal posts. We are heading more and more into a work culture. We are either stressed because we desperately want to work or stressed that we need to be working harder to get the promotion. Our weekends are shrinking. The work-life balance is becoming blurred. We’re running out of mental space where we can be independent of our role in the economy.
The Economist: How can the mental-health crisis be solved? Does the government have a role, or is it up to society and the individual?
Mr Haig: At the moment we are heading in the wrong direction. In some cases, quite fast. I think if there is a solution, it is to tackle it at the root—among young people and work upward. Education needs looking at: half of all life-long mental-health conditions and illnesses originate in people aged 14 or under. Every day, I hear from so many parents of young teenagers who are having all kinds of crises, whether it’s to do with social-media bullying, panic attacks or their kids being stressed about endless exams.
Mental health needs to be taken seriously in employment. Campaigns for every workplace to provide a mental-health first-aider might sound like a gimmick or a token, but it is an important signal that makes people feel like mental health is something that they can legitimately talk about to the employers.
The mental health crisis is partly a crisis of meaning because the way we work is changing with the influx of computing and AI that can do what humans can do. We are facing a philosophical question. We need to see everything through the prism of mental health rather than the prism of just economics, employment figures or GCSE grades.
Excerpt from “Notes on a Nervous Planet” (Canongate, 2018), by Matt Haig
A problem in your pocket
While writing this book, early in 2018, I was asked by The Observer to contribute to an article where lots of writers asked the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith questions. I took the opportunity, not least because I had seen Zadie Smith at a couple of literary parties when I was newly published and had been crippled and mute with anxiety and hadn’t dared to go over and talk to her.
I had read about her social media scepticism and how she values her ‘right to be wrong’, and so I asked her, ‘Do you worry about what social media is doing to society?’
She didn’t mince her words, and started with a critique of smartphones.
‘I can’t stand the phones and don’t want them in my life in any form. They make me feel anxious, depressed, dead inside, unhinged. But I fully support anyone who finds them delightful and a profound asset to their existence.’
Although a self-described ‘Luddite abstainer’, Smith does think the time is right to look at how we’re using this technology. ‘What is this little device in your pocket doing to your intimate relationships with others?’ she asked. ‘To your behaviour as a citizen within a society? Maybe nothing! Maybe it’s all totally cool. But maybe not? . . . Do we need it resting by our pillows at night? Do our seven year- olds need phones? Do we wish to pass down our own dependency and obsession? It all has to be thought through. We can’t just let the tech companies decide for us.’
I use my phone a lot more than Smith does but despite that – or maybe because of it – I share a lot of her anxieties. And there are signs that even those working for the tech companies are concerned, which means we should be even more worried about where those stupendously powerful companies are leading us. For instance, it’s been known—at least since The New York Times reported it in 2011—that many Apple and Yahoo! employees choose to send their kids to schools which shun technology, such as the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos.
There are also many tech insiders who have come out to warn against the things they have had a hand in creating. There was the guy who invented the ‘Like’ button on Facebook, Justin Rosenstein, who has said that technology is so addictive his phone has a parent-control feature to stop him downloading apps and restrict his use of social media. And, as a side point, it is worth mentioning that the Facebook ‘like’ function is also what helps the data miners understand who we are. Our online likes reveal everything from our sexual orientation to our politics, and can be harvested to better influence us, as seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, where reports suggested 50 million Facebook members had their data improperly accessed by the British firm that helps businesses and political groups ‘change audience behaviour’.
‘It is very common,’ Rosenstein told The Guardian in 2017, like a latter-day Dr Frankenstein, ‘for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences . . . Everyone is distracted, all the time.’
And two of Twitter’s founders have expressed similar regrets. Ev Williams—who stepped down as CEO in 2010—told The New York Times in 2017 that he was unhappy with the way Twitter had helped Donald Trump become president. ‘It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that.’
Another Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has other regrets. He stated in an interview with Inc. that he thought the big wrong turn Twitter made was when it allowed strangers to tag people in their posts, as it created an environment rife for bullying. Another employee, according to Buzzfeed, has called Twitter a ‘honeypot for assholes’.
And, in early 2018, Tim Cook—CEO of Apple—declared to a group of students in Essex, England, that he doesn’t think children (such as his nephew) should use a social network, or overuse technology at all, which shows that these aren’t simply ‘Luddite’ concerns.
Indeed, a group of former tech employees have gone further, and set up the Center for Humane Technology, aimed at ‘realigning technology with humanity’s best interests’ and reversing the ‘digital attention crisis’.
Now, at long last, there are many instances of tech people getting together to discuss concerns. For instance, at a 2018 conference in Washington called Truth About Tech, speakers included Google’s former ‘ethicist’ and now prominent tech whistleblower Tristan Harris and early investor of Facebook Roger McNamee, along with politicians and members of lobby groups such as Common Sense Media, who are trying to combat tech addiction in young people. A variety of concerns were raised, such as the way Google’s Gmail ‘hijacks’ minds, or how Snapchat exploits teenage friendships to fuel tech addiction via functions like ‘Snapchat streaks’ where users can see how many interactions they’ve had with friends per day. According to The Guardian, Harris compared the tech world to the Wild West in that the ethos is ‘build a casino wherever you want’ and McNamee compared it to the tobacco and food industries in the past, where cigarettes were promoted as healthy, or where manufacturers of ready meals failed to mention their products were loaded with salt. The difference being that with, say, an addiction to cigarettes, is that the cigarettes had no information about us. They didn’t collect our data. They couldn’t know us better than our own families. The internet, of course, can know everything about us. It can know who our friends are, it can know our taste in music, it can know our health concerns, our love life, and our politics – and internet companies can keep using this information to make their products ever more addictive. And at the moment, warn the tech insiders, there isn’t much regulation to stop them.
An increasing amount of research reinforces their concerns. For example, studies that show how technology contributes to a state of ‘continual partial attention’ and how it can be addictive. One 2017 study from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas concluded that the mere presence of your smartphone can reduce ‘cognitive capacity’.
At the time of writing, there is still no official recognition that ‘smartphone addiction’ or ‘social media addiction’ are psychological disorders, although the fact that the World Health Organization now classifies video game addiction as an official mental disorder suggests that there is a growing understanding of how seriously technology can affect our mental health. But that understanding still has a long way to go, and clearly lags behind the disorientating speed of technological change.
Though pressure is rising. In 2018, for instance, CNN reported that the mighty Unilever threatened to pull its advertising from Facebook and Google unless they combat toxic problems – including privacy concerns, objectionable content and a lack of protections for children – which are ‘eroding social trust, harming users and undermining democracies’. There is a growing awareness that the great power of internet companies must come, Spiderman-style, with a great sense of responsibility. However, it is debatable as to how much responsibility they will develop without real social and financial pressure of the kind we are only beginning to see. As with fast food or cigarettes or the gun industry, the companies making a profit from something might be the most reluctant to see the potential problems. So when the people on the inside are among those raising the alarm, we should really listen.
About Jaime Bonetti Zeller
Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.