Are anxiety disorders linked to modern technology? (Part 1)


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This past week, my English class read an article suggesting that the rise of modern technology-- primarily social media-- was causing a generation to grow up disconnected from reality, and ultimately less functional in "real world" environments. I've read articles with similar premises before, and found them unconvincing-- both for lack of data, and for the apparent lack of understanding of the authors in how most young people use technology.

But how can we test this premise? If technology-crazed teens and 20-somethings really are functioning less well in non-online environments, and lack basic social skills, there ought to be a measurable rise in social anxiety related disorders over the past 10 or so years. Of course, using a diagnosed condition as a variable is not ideal-- it automatically excludes people who may not have time/money/insurance to deal with doctors or therapists, limiting our population. On the other hand, we would expect to find those with the money to seek professional help for an anxiety disorder equally more likely to have money to spend on new technological devices. Additionally, other measures of "poor social function" are very subjective, a diagnosable condition (in theory) is not.

So if a rise in the use of technology is causing a rise in anxiety disorders, we would expect to see several things. Firstly, we would expect to see anxiety disorders start to rise around the time social media really started to take off. For simplicity's sake, let's just use Facebook as an example, which opened in 2004 and accepted all users 13+ in 2006. Secondly, we would expect to see a strong upwards trend in anxiety as technology was more accessible, i.e., greater exposure to technology would cause more social anxiety. We would also expect to see diagnoses at younger and younger ages, as children are exposed to technology and social media as established things at much younger ages.

As far confounding variables, you'd be right in thinking there are many. Studying anxiety disorders is still fairly new science in and of itself-- who's to say rising rates of diagnosis aren't because of better understanding of the disorders? It could be that the younger generation is more comfortable seeking professional help for mental illness than those before them. It could be that doctors and therapists feel pressured to give a diagnosis when someone comes to their office in order to ensure return visits. Or, this could be a case of reverse causation, where those with anxiety disorders are more likely to use technology than those without-- and even using technology makes them feel anxious as is the nature of the disorder!

That's a lot to consider when looking at this question. So what does the science say? (Continued in part 2)


3 Comments

This article really stood out to me. It is insane that modern technology can cause such rising problems like this. Although it makes complete sense, because people rely on technology too much. It is true that people start to rely on technology and they do not know how to deal with the real world. Once they are faced with the real world environment, they become loss, thus making them nervous. I would love to look more into this issue, perhaps for a essay, blog post, or another project.

Your blog post really got me thinking about what I learned in my Marketing 301 class the other day. We were discussing technological forces in the macroenvironment. We talked a lot about how social media and talking through the internet is a big cultural force these days. We did a clicker question asking if we think this is benefical to society or not, and like you said, most people responded that it is not good and causes people anxiety, lack of good communication skills, etc. Suprisingly enough, we studies have shown that it actually IS beneficial. Since we're so used to all this technology, being in touch with people 24/7 and not having much "alone time" it actually helps people have better communication skills in the real world.

It's interesting to note that your class believed technology to be a detriment to social development. It seems to me sometimes that when these questions are asked, the responders think of "oh, it could negatively affect these people" rather than asking themselves how they've personally been affected. I would have been interested to see how people in that class would have responded to a question worded "Has technology made an overall positive or negative impact on your life?", because I'm willing to bet the response would be different.
I talk a bit more about the data in part two of this blog post, but it's definitely true that many anxious people feel technology has helped them to communicate when they might not in person. The difficulty becomes noting when online communication is being used as a crutch to avoid real-life interactions-- that's when it becomes a problem.

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