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Wednesday September 17th 2014

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It’s All In Your Head

By Sarah McCartan

Is social media overuse and the general state of being over-connected to the technology devices that you once welcomed into your life with open arms truly taking a toll on your—our—mental health?

No way.

It’s all in your head—or is it?

Facing the Facts

An IDC research report survey conducted on behalf of Facebook in March of this year, surveyed nearly 8,000 iPhone and Android smartphone owners in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 44 daily, over a weeklong period of time.

The summary reports that today, half of the total U.S. population uses smartphones, with the sense of feeling connected being noted as the strongest, collective sentiment, and cited as an overwhelming benefit of said devices.

It all sounds positive so far, right?

Not so fast.

The report also shows that within the first 15 minutes of waking up, four out of five surveyed smartphone owners are checking their phones. What’s more, throughout the remainder of the waking day, 79 percent of respondents admit to having their phone on or near them for all but two hours. Of this time, on average, 32:51 minutes is spent on Facebook daily, with an average number of sessions totaling at 13.8.

Similar findings from a study conducted by Nokia show that, on average, mobile users check their cell phone every six and a half minutes. And in total, an average of 150 times a day.

That’s a lot of time spent engaged in the virtual realm.

This over-connectivity is a heavily weighed and somewhat controversial topic popping up regularly amongst major headlines, and a matter that is being increasingly studied by neuroscientists and psychologists worldwide, along with industry stakeholders.

It’s causing what some feel to be a disorder, bringing attention to a new phenomenon known as FOMO—the fear of missing out, and is even said to be driving us SMAD—Social Media Anxiety Disorder—a phrase, or condition rather, author and social media strategist Julia Spira claims to have coined.

How do you know if you’re getting SMAD? In a healthy living article featured on the Huffington Post blog, Spira cites several signals you may have a problem. Signals include having your cell phone as your number one accessory, feeling anxiousness from lack of responses to tweets, texting in silence while sitting around eating dinner with others, or overly refreshing and checking your “cute photo” to see if it’s been liked or shared, and so on.

While some are quick to designate this “iDisorder” as a universal problem or technological phenomenon, others suggest that this over-connected obsession is generational, and that it in turn is contributing to psychological behavioral disorders specifically amongst millennials, such as narcissism.

An article singling out “The ME ME ME Generation,” plastered on the cover of the May 2013 edition of TIME Magazine reported the following.

“The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58 percent more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.”

The numbers themselves come with little surprise, after all, we live in an age where we now have metrics to gage just how many people like what we do, what we look like, who we are—online. We see ourselves how we want the world to see us, and in turn, can feed off of this, to an extent that generations before us couldn’t have possibly imagined.

This measuring ourselves against others cannot only feed egos, it can destroy self-esteem. And it doesn’t stop at the millennials or with a particular platform. On a lighter but no less serious note, it can even extend all the way to mothers—mothers who aren’t feeling crafty enough on Pinterest.

The Today Show recently surveyed 7,000 American mothers and found that 42 percent of those surveyed “suffer from Pinterest stress—the worry that they’re not crafty or creative enough.”

Not only is social media making us feel un-crafty, or excessively loving or loathing of our looks—it’s being used to measure our happiness—at least according to a recent poll in TIME Magazine.

The July edition features a poll titled “Got Joy?” This poll was conducted by a telephone survey among a national random sample of 801 Americans ages 18 and older who were asked a series of question pertaining to what makes them happy. A “Then and Now” section of the poll showcased a list of several items that fewer people percentage-wise currently indicate doing to improve their mood compared to 2004. The list looks a little something like this—eating, shopping, having sex, helping others and praying/meditating.

This showing was followed by a simple, yet powerful statement, “But people are spending time on social media.”

But, how many people? According to those surveyed in the poll—56 percent.

After asking only two questions dedicated toward happiness in and of itself, the poll shifted total focus to social media statistics—this time in regard to online feelings—feeling better or worse about yourself from social media interactions, and also perceptions.

Of respondents, 76 percent answered yes—they believe that on social-media profiles, other individuals make themselves look happier, more attractive and more successful than they really are. Then it came to self-portrayal. Here, 78 percent answered yes—they believe their own social-media profile reflects what they are really like.

Artificial or Anti-Social

People turn to their vices for connectivity, or happiness—yet there seems to be an evident disconnect. Has our relationship with ourselves and with others drastically been reformulated or mutated because of social media?

After scouring additional studies, the national media’s take on it, and all virtual outlets imaginable, I decided to settle down for some real-time, face-to face conversations with local specialists to discuss these matters further.

“It’s one of the things I’ve witnessed change over time—this evolution of change in communication,” said local Psychologist Dr. Patrick Preston. “It’s changing relationships.”

Not only are we having a more difficult time analyzing virtual forms of communication, it is being suggested that the number of Facebook friends we have, or interaction with said friends, can even reach a point of diminishing return.

Likewise, it’s suggested that “a lower number of connections on Facebook may actually mean you are spending more time in the physical world with relationships—versus covering up with these artificial relationships,” said Preston.

For some, these relationships can even become a crutch as individuals become lost amid in essence—a fantasy world.

“People establish relationships online—sometimes these relationships aren’t real. From my experience, there are some real emotional scars from wounds and disappointments based on portrayal of online relationships. That’s real, psychological harm to individuals,” he said.

With article after article exploring digital dualism and the augmented realm, many have theorized that the physical and the virtual are two distinct worlds. On the contrary, others argue these worlds are one in the same.

“My biggest interest in this is peoples’ personas,” said Trish Taylor, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Coach.

“Sometimes peoples’ Facebook personas are not the person they are presenting in real life—who are you? Are you your Facebook persona?” she asks.

Not only is this Facebook persona causing a disconnect in perception of both ourselves and each other, as indicated in the TIME magazine poll, according to Taylor, these virtual relationships are overpowering and in some cases can even take the place of, real, physical contact and verbal communication—and seem to be widely doing just that.

“We’re not talking to people. We’re replacing actual real conversations. We all sit around a table in a room and are on our phones,” she said.

It’s not a problem that is experienced in isolation, but oftentimes one that transfers over to affect interpersonal relationships.

“I’ve had partners in relationships really frustrated with the absence of their partner because of being online all the time,” said Preston.

Taylor agrees, “Other people tell me about other people who have a problem.”

She cautions that not only does this hinder our abilities to form authentic bonds, and further forge these relationships; it disrupts us from living in the moment.

“We’re not in the moment anymore. We’re either thinking in status updates or thinking about who might see it, or who might not,” said Taylor. “Being in the moment and actually experiencing life in the right now we’re missing out on, because we’re not focused on what’s happening to us—we’re thinking about what it’s going to look like on the screen for someone else,” she said.

Without social media, Taylor admits she would be hindered from keeping in touch with her family overseas.

Perhaps it’s our urgent urges, rather than moderate usage that have become the culprit.

“What is it that makes people think, ‘I’ve got to look. I’ve got to find out?’” asks Taylor. “Unless you’re actually an emergency surgeon, who is going to call you that really, really, really needs you? Who’s going to text you? What is really going to be so urgent? Maybe we all have a higher sense of importance.”

Blurred Lines, Difficult Diagnosis

Preston cautions not to stereotype those who suffer from technology-related conditions, or assume those who struggle the most exist within an extreme world of isolation or solitude. But rather, it tends to be the opposite.

“Research shows that people with the most problems tend to be more functional—more successful,” he said.

In addition to following research on the subject of individual relationships with technology, Preston has worked firsthand with persons suffering from technology addictions, specifically those related to the world of gaming.

With gaming overuse specifically, individuals have visited Preston and willingly admitted having a problem. For social media usage, admitting you have a problem sometimes is not that straightforward. In turn, neither is diagnosing.

“It’s easy to say that it’s the connection that is causing pathology, but I’m not sure it’s the primary factor. I think that in the struggle, people can go to the Internet as a way of escape,” he said. “It’s hard to locate what comes first.”

Although current research is charting similarities between addictions and impulse controls, there remains a tension within research, when it comes to defining technology-related disorders.

This begs the question, is social media the culprit or is it the perpetuator of underlying issues?

“It’s hard for me to over-speak either side of the conversation, but I think it can go both ways,” said Preston. “In my experience—when you dig underneath it, there are problems that individuals are coping with—such as depression, or anxiety.”

On the other hand he mentions research that is showing that people who are connected the most can have increased rates of anxiety and depression.

This can carry over into what is intended to be times of rest, and even cause issues such as sleep disorders. For this condition specifically, Preston has seen the scenario be similar and calls examples of it being both a mental and physical struggle.

“There are examples where people have insomnia and then they go online to try and cope, but then it perpetuates the problem,” he said.

Calming the Monkey Mind

It takes little effort to utter the words “keep calm, and carry on” but in an overloaded reality, for many, it’s not that simple, and mentally can pose a very real barrier—even for simply functioning day to day, without distraction.

So how do we disconnect, and calm our “monkey” mind? How does one regain or even maintain focus, find balance, and in essence, reset their brain or train it for more tempered, less anxious or obsessive behavioral patterns?

How does one simply put down a habit, put down their device?

Much like Taylor, Preston does not take an anti-technology stance. He too recognizes the positives of connectivity, and finds the benefit in welcomed, but well-tempered connectivity.

“Still, there’s something really important to be said about disconnecting and practicing existing with [and within] the physical world and finding calmness,” he said. “Constant stimulation gets in the way of a calm mind.”

It all goes back to the center of the chain—the brain. While the frontal portion of the brain manages rational thought, systems of relaxation are located in the back of the brain.

“When connectivity keeps the front part active we are unable to provide relaxation in the back part of our brain,” Preston explained. “With that comes the inability to calm ourselves—find peace.”

This proximal relationship causes what Preston describes as “a dance between the conscious and non-conscious.”

“People who are most connected, can’t calm their minds. Their frontal cortex is so used to instant stimulation that they can’t calm down and focus. I think that goes hand in hand with anxiety,” he said.

Some suggest a total detox, or blackout from your devices; however, both Preston and Taylor have found moderation, as well as meditative practices to be key in achieving a necessary balance.

“It’s finding ways to do it in moderation,” said Preston. “Finding ways to scale back how many hours you are on it and then using your time to create social relationships.”

“It all goes back to—why are we using it, and what are we using it for,” said Taylor. “I think it’s better for your mental health to monitor yourself and to say, ‘I don’t need to look at that every five minutes.’ If you are looking at it constantly—what are you replacing?”

She also is quick to admit that totally tuning out is not an easy task, “I’m realizing just how difficult it is to actually switch off for 15 minutes.”

To achieve moderation Taylor recommends setting S.M.A.R.T. goals—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely.

“If you feel it’s a problem—set a goal, like you would with losing weight, or anything else,” she said. For example say, “I’m not going to use it one day a week or I am only going to use it once a day, or once an hour.”

“Maybe just not always having whatever ‘it’ is [phone or laptop] right next to you. Putting it on the charger and going to do something else.”

Taylor also recommends practicing visualization. As a part of her NLP practices, Taylor works through various emotional release time empowerment exercises with her clients.

“In NLP terms—We talk about, focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t want. You get what you focus on,” said Taylor. “For anybody that feels like they’re clouded out and have got too much crap in their brain, releasing negative emotions allows you to visualize the person you want to be.”

And then there’s meditation. Taylor encourages that mindfulness meditation is literally as simple as breathing and counting your breaths.

“You don’t need to go on a training program [to meditate]. Everyone can do it differently. For some people it’s praying. It’s switching yourself off from everything, and being calm,” she said. “It’s whatever works for you.”

It is all in your head, after all.