Thriving In A Digital World

Due to advances in communication technologies, an ‘always available, always on’ mentality has become the norm. In recognition of this, and the potential challenges to our wellbeing technology can present, this month the Australian Psychological Society’s National Psychology Week’s theme is ‘thriving in the digital age’. While technology is often maligned by the media as a kind of ‘devil in disguise’, the effects of technology are more complex and nuanced than the good-bad dichotomy suggests.

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One point worthy of consideration is that often it is not technology itself, but the way we use it that determines its effects. While we can’t control the march of new devices (without compromising our integration with contemporary society as would be the case if one went without a mobile phone), we can, for instance, choose whether we check work emails when it’s not essential or engage in Facebook voyeurism when we’re feeling fragile. Given the rising costs of stress at both personal and societal levels (35 per cent of Australians report a significant level of distress) and that technology is a known variable, it makes sense to evaluate its role in our lives and to take preventative measures against threats to our wellbeing.

Take the abundant scope for miscommunication and mismanaged expectations online, which can lead to frustration and disappointment and leave us feeling isolated. While this can be particularly dangerous for those suffering clinical depression or anxiety, these feelings can be precursors or contributing factors to depression and anxiety, which have been linked in numerous studies with technology use. Exposure to negative social interactions such as cyberbullying is also perilous. Over-reliance on a mobile device is also a hazard. Research has identified a type of separation anxiety with very real physiological symptoms that afflicts people whose phones have become extensions of themselves.

On the flip side, research suggests that social network usage may protect against mental illness, as when used wisely, it can support and enable social interaction and connection, and allow users to reflect aspects of their identity and express emotion that may be relevant to their lived experience. A recent Australian study by Dr Peggy Kern from the University of Melbourne found that social media use can facilitate positive quality interactions, social support and social connectedness – which is really social media’s raison d’etre. In the science of positive psychology, positive relationships are referred to as the ‘trump card of wellbeing’.

Conversely, ‘problems in relationships’ is the most common reason people seek therapy, according to research. So how do we thrive in the digital age? Firstly, clarify your overall intention for the use of technology in your life and your family’s life. Better still, set a specific goal about usage – set an amount of time you will spend on Facebook or scroll through Instagram and perhaps consider going on an information diet (as Tim Ferris suggests in his 4-Hour Work Week). Secondly, create tech-free daily rituals that support your wellbeing (say, replacing looking at the Internet first thing in the morning and last thing at night with brief mindfulness practice or journalling). Also be mindful of the impact of technology within your offline relationships. Returning a text while you walk and chat to a friend undermines both your attention to the interaction and the relationship itself by communicating to you both that the relationship isn’t your priority.

One study found that simply having a phone on the table negatively impacted a real-life interaction. Finally, consider a ‘digital detox’. Increasingly, research shows that stress recovery benefits from psychological detachment. For example, diary studies showed that psychological detachment in the evening was associated with lower fatigue at bedtime and the following morning. Arianna Huffington from the Huffington Post recently recommended implementing a Shut-off Sunday. Personally, I’ve been attempting to implement a Sacred Sunday with limited technology use and I have to admit it’s a challenge – particularly when it comes to the phone, as I reach for it to take a photo, check the forecast or text a friend to meet for lunch! Despite its novel manifestations, technology conforms to the rules we use to appraise more prehistoric aspects of life, from letting the kids watch TV after school to taking on a mortgage. It can be an enemy or friend of our capacity to flourish. The challenge is to use it wisely.

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