Given the wealth of technology at our fingertips, together with the internet’s infinite wonders, today’s citizens should be happier than ever before. We live at the pinnacle of progress when boredom has been consigned to history by affordable pocket-sized electronic devices capable of simplifying our lives in unprecedented ways. However, research suggests we’re less content than we were in 1991 when recorded levels of happiness in America peaked. Incomes are rising and technology is ubiquitous, yet our iPhones and Spotify subscriptions aren’t making us happy. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests the very devices we cleave to are contributing to soaring rates of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and dissatisfaction with public institutions.
Clearly, scrolling through heavily-edited (and repeatedly retaken) Instagram images of classmates will make any teenager feel inadequate. A lengthy Twitter spat causes its participants to feel frustrated and entrenched, rather than empowered or content. The dopamine rush generated by social media likes and shares is alarming psychologists, while addictions to sex, shopping, gambling, and gaming are incredibly difficult to resolve when temptation is a mere swipe away.
However, technology and the internet can if used appropriately, also improve our mental health. Here are ten ways to ensure that tomorrow’s society learns from today’s mistakes:
1. Use mental health awareness apps.
Recognizing there’s a problem is one thing, but tackling our declining happiness is quite another. Fortunately, if ironically, the solution is found in the source of the problem. The What’s Up app tracks moods and delivers therapy methods, while Happify’s games were developed by professionals to improve users’ state of mind. Talkspace brings a therapist into your home, and Quit That! is great for tackling addictions or habits.
2. Use physical fitness apps.
The health benefits of a short run three times a week would fill the rest of this page, and mobile technology can be the ideal personal trainer. Whether you’re sharing activities on Strava, busting HIIT moves with Freeletics or learning from the experts on Daily Burn, every form of physical activity has its own apps. And when the exercise is over, MyFitnessPal’s calorie counter and diet tracker tools ensure your body receives the optimal fuel for recovery and good health.
3. Reduce or eliminate social media activity.
The echo chambers and bear pits of social media platforms like Facebook tend to frustrate more than they delight. They present a distorted view of reality, making our lives seem inferior to that of the Joneses. Many people with social media addictions are happier once they’ve abandoned the hunt for likes, and stopped comparing themselves to airbrushed photos in manipulated timelines. Delete social apps to prevent push notifications, and access website portals sparingly.
4. Be mindful.
What happens when you try to eat dinner, watch a TV show and catch up on Instagram stories, all at once? None of those things is done particularly well or truly appreciated. Mindfulness has exploded into the national conversation, encouraging us to enjoy each moment or sensation to the fullest. Carrying out the three actions listed above in sequence means each one will be far more enjoyable, memorable and successful. Multitasking is usually counterproductive, anyway.
5. Talk about it.
The internet provides an outlet for anyone to blog or vlog about their thoughts and opinions. The Mighty has become a hugely successful forum for sharing mental health concerns, with a global community providing support and encouragement. Knowing you’re not the only one experiencing a specific emotion or event is often therapeutic in itself. From grief to agoraphobia, people around the world will be sharing your journey at any given moment.
6. Request flexible working arrangements.
Smartphones and push email make it difficult to segregate professional and personal time, but business apps help as well as hinder. Cloud-hosted programs like Google Docs and online file storage platforms such as Dropbox mean that many job roles can be handled remotely, part-time or even permanently. This reduces commuting (itself a major cause of stress and anxiety), while freeing up extra time with friends and family – or creating some much-needed me-time.
7. Remember the internet isn’t reality.
The recent movie Ready Player One depicted VR as an escape from grim reality, yet the opposite perspective is probably more accurate. Polarized opinions, anonymous profiles and airbrushed photographs all contribute to our increasingly negative self-opinion and worldview. Those opinionated Twitter trolls aren’t part of real life, nor are the rolling news reports from a mass media reliant on shock value and controversy to maximize clicks and eyeballs.
8. Set limits on handset and app use.
OS manufacturers are encouraging this growing trend. The latest version of Android (Pie) includes a Digital Wellbeing app, which monitors how frequently the device is unlocked and how much time is spent on specific apps. These stats alone may shock users into moderating their behavior. App timers pause specific applications, so you can’t use them for too long each day. There’s also a Wind Down mode, turning the screen gray at night to discourage use.
9. Keep technology out of the bedroom.
Psychologists increasingly believe you shouldn’t go to bed until you’re tired. Attempting to sleep prematurely increases anxiety, potentially inciting a self-fulfilling prophecy about not getting enough sleep. Insomnia is hugely detrimental to mental health, and the blue light emitted by many devices stimulates our brains instead of soothing them. Don’t look at mobile devices in bed – period. Read a book or magazine, or make your own entertainment.
This builds on the previous point, but more widely. Next time you’re at a sporting event or concert, concentrate on the action instead of recording shaky video clips you’ll never re-watch. Don’t be that family in the restaurant, all staring silently at glowing screens. Talk to each other. Kids thrive on parental attention, and Minecraft is a poor surrogate. Plan events where technology is marginalized or irrelevant, and discover the world you’ve been missing. It’s out there waiting for you.