Is Technology Damaging Our Mental Well-Being?

It would appear that modern devices may be damaging both our mental and physical wellbeing.

Judging by the physical and mental attacks reportedly fueled by gaming, movie violence and the anonymity of  social media confrontations, the answer would appear to be a qualified ‘yes.’

But the issue of device-driven human disconnection goes far deeper than that.

For millions of years, humans – among all the primates – have been ever-so-slowly evolving and maturing into the premier genus on Planet Earth. And we’ve reached that position thanks to one unique characteristic. And that’s language –  the exclusive learned ability to communicate and share complex ideas and information between ourselves.

The ability to speak to speak to each other…  listen, think, feel and wrap ideas and emotions in words is what sets us highest on the evolutionary chain. We share the human experience through language and – like other primates – we strengthen those bonds through touch, neurolinguistics and the written word.

For thousands of years this interaction has forged the tribal and village bonds that have empowered human individuals to find strength in numbers. By meeting, talking, sharing, we’ve been able to join forces to work together with a collective purpose and goals.

So, it would seem that language is a constituent element of civilisation. It has raised man from a savage state to the technological plane we have reached today.  In short, “man could not become man except by language.” We wouldn’t have devices without first learning about language.

But even as all of our other human characteristics have evolved and developed, our historical reliance on physical contact and interaction has never wavered. People need people. And technology just doesn’t cut it.

As it becomes apparent that loneliness and isolation is becoming a huge cause for concern, new studies are appearing almost weekly that prove beyond doubt that social support and interaction have a positive effect on people’s physical and mental health. And the reverse is even more glaringly obvious. Devices are dividing people, leaving them lonely, disconnected, unsupported and plagued by physical, mental and emotional ill-health

The Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research says it best.

“Human beings are a social species which require safe and secure social surroundings to survive. Satisfying social relationships are essential for mental and physical well-being. Impaired social relationship can lead to loneliness. Since the time of dawn, loneliness (has been) …  perceived as a global human phenomenon.”

“Loneliness can lead to various psychiatric disorders like depression, alcohol abuse, child abuse, sleep problems, personality disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.”

“It also leads to various physical disorders like diabetes, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and cardiovascular diseases like coronary heart disease, hypertension (HTN), obesity, physiological aging, cancer, poor hearing and poor health.”

“Left untended, loneliness can have serious consequences for (the) mental and physical health of people.”

Loneliness and isolation is such a serious problem that it’s considered a major health threat around the world. Some analysts believe that while it’s certainly powered today by distancing devices, it first gained traction when new technology of a different kind – namely motor cars –  became widely available.

Once people were free to take themselves out of the traditional family and tribal group, the so-called “nuclear family” took hold. And as those tiny units broke down, individuals were left alone and lonely. More than 7.7 million people now live by themselves in the UK with a staggering 50.2 percent — or 124.6 million American adults living alone. Not everyone suffers of course: but the insidious effects of loneliness increase with age.

Today, the major contributor to loneliness and its known mental and physical effects are devices.

In little more than two generations, we have virtually turned our backs on the special attributes that make us human – physical face-to-face communication. Some studies assert that children are already showing the evolutionary signs of ‘damage by device’.

That erosion is frighteningly fast given the many thousands – maybe millions of years – it has taken humans to actually learn and master inter-personal language.

And it’s no joke.

With trillions of messages whipping through the ether every hour of every day, it’s high speed deconstruction.

Want to talk to your colleague two desks away? Good. Send her an email.

Want to support your little boy in the Big Race at the School Sports? Good. Send him a text.… and don’t forget the emoticon.

Haven’t taken the family to see Grandma in ages? Try Skype for a big deal. But make sure you ignore her obvious need for a hug.

And so it goes. Inanimate ‘sharing’ by billions of people across a myriad of social media platforms – all with no need whatsoever for each one to come into actual contact with another human person!

Meanwhile, communities fracture as neighbourhoods divide house-by-house into urban fortresses secured behind towering fences and in security-sealed apartment blocks.

Children are ferried to and from school and activities in closed airconditioned vehicles. More workers toil in isolation over computers at home. Even the local library – once a social refuge for the old and lonely – has been depersonalised by e-technology.

And whenever it can be avoided, many young people never talk to anybody – even family who occupy the same house – unless it’s by device.

They are ‘on’ their phones and other devices seemingly 24/7- even in school time. And they’re not talking but texting. No longer able to acknowledge a neighbour, pass the time of day with a casual acquaintance and seemingly unable to enter a genuine conversation with anyone.

So, they’re failing to learn the precious, hard-won power of language and social interaction – and all of the human security that comes with it – at a rate it’s difficult to appreciate.

While the social isolation inherent in this new technological world, is already damaging the physical and mental health of whole populations, it seems that the encroaching decline of spoken language and people-to-people interaction may yet have even more devastating results.

 Opinion piece by Jenni Munro