Clinical psychologist, Benjamin F. Miller, wrote that America was already on track to face a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 outbreak. While many Americans are feeling the emotional toll of the pandemic, Millennials and Generation Z represent particularly vulnerable groups. Many were already suffering from declining mental health. The new normal of social distancing is increasing the loneliness and isolation that so many within these generations are experiencing.
Many argue that technology allows us to connect effectively even while separated physically. While this is true, we know that in-person interaction is better for emotional health than virtual connection. Jean Twenge, in her book, iGen addresses this issue. She explains that if virtual connection were as valuable as face-to-face connection, then “teens who communicate via social media and text should be just as happy, be just as likely to dodge loneliness, and be just as likely to avoid depression as teens who see their friends in person or engage in other activities that don’t involve screens.” However, the research demonstrates that, “teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy….all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” As we consider this research alongside the fact that most classes, church groups, sports practices, even some camps, not to mention almost all social interactions, have been moved to a virtual format involving screens, the potential for increased depression, unhappiness, and loneliness is evident.
While technology is undoubtedly a gift during this time, it is not without significant risks. Twenge reports that “the correlation between social media use and loneliness appears across all demographic groups: boys and girls, Hispanics, whites, and blacks, and those both lower and higher in socioeconomic status.” Twenge also reports that “eighth graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27%, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework cut their risk significantly” and that “teens who spend more than three hours a day on an electronic device are 35% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.” Research by Brigham Young University indicates that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity and present a risk for premature mortality.
Nicolas Kardaras in his book, Glow Kids, explained children between the ages of 10 and 17 today will experience nearly one third fewer face-to face interactions with other people throughout they lifetimes as a result of their increasingly electronic culture, at home and in school. He goes on to explain that “an emotional connection is built, however, when eye contact is made during 60-70% of the conversation…the less eye contact, the less a connection is made.” Our kids, teens, and young adults today desperately need the emotional connection that comes from meaningful face-to-face time.
Peter Gray, my favorite researcher on the importance of play, notes a correlation between a decrease in playtime and a rise in major depression, anxiety, and suicide. Gray writes, “If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less.”
As we navigate a season where many playgrounds are closed, sports and team events are cancelled, and other activities are being held virtually, we must be vigilant to monitor the mental and emotional health of the young people in our lives. Reduced emotional connection and increased risks for loneliness and depression are serious threats to the well-being of our young people at this time. We must be proactive to find ways to meet their needs for face-to-face interaction, emotional connection, and healthy activity and play in ways that will allow them to thrive.
The following is a guest post from Josiah Cassellius, a Millennial writer and producer.
Humanity has always compartmentalized the different aspects of life; let’s call them our different faces for different occasions. This is the idea that we treat our mothers differently than we treat our fathers. We say things to our friends that our grandmother would chastise us for repeating to her. For most of us, only a handful of people ever get to see our vulnerable side. We are good at it, you see, very good at adapting to our surroundings. So good, it seems, that we have decided to enter ourselves into the next level of competition.
In the past we fragmented across our home lives, friendships, and work. Generally, it was a very small community, but that has changed. Today, thanks to technology, we interface with people everywhere, and the fragmentation of our identity has expanded. This reality can make it hard to prioritize our focus.
One could be forgiven for being uncertain in what order to place the dozens of fragments of our lives, it is, after all, a very complicated question. It used to go something like this: faith, family, friends, work, then everything else. Such a simple, yet elegant, system. Except that now work has been sub-divided even further for most, and friends and family are more spread out than ever.
In the midst of such fragmentation, we often resort to tribalization. It is a phenomenon that helped people survive harsh environments and threats. While it worked for hunter/gatherers, in an increasingly interconnected world, one that overwhelms us, it may not be effective. Much the same way that there is a sense of peace and security in our homes during a storm, we enter into our sacred bubble and push the world out, and when we do come out to see what is happening, it can seem like we are entering a war zone. The outrage, the accusations, the controversy we see around us all lead to alienation. We run to our tribe, what feels familiar and friendly, and we label anyone not in our bunker as the enemy and reconciliation becomes nearly impossible.
The reality, though, is that the circumstances do not merit such distress. People are becoming more self-aware as to biases and opinions that are destructive. However, we no longer sit down and read the news and digest and discuss it rationally with friends and family whom we trust. Instead, we read headlines and tweets and use them to reinforce our narratives and we scream out into the void, and if we are unfortunate enough to receive an answer that contradicts us, we lash out.
So, what can we do? When we read something online that we disagree with, we need to not assume ill-intent, that only breeds more anger. Give the benefit of the doubt to a person, and maybe we will see them, and their ideas, in a new light. A positive approach may even open the door for healthy dialogue. Let’s turn our online spaces into the homes and meeting-places of old, where we come together to express ideas, and to help each other understand the true meaning of what a community can be. Be open to hearing dissenting views, and be prepared to admit fault, and potentially, we may just escape unscathed.
As a toddler who is overwhelmed by emotions cries out in frustration, so also adults who are stretched too thin react poorly to push-back. When we feel ourselves becoming overwhelmed, we need to reconnect with our fragmented selves, identify what is truly important, and remember that reality is not online.
In his short story, A Christmas Tree, Charles Dickens writes: “I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree.” He describes the wonder of the children as they looked at the ornaments. “This motley collection of odd objects, clustering on the tree like magic fruit—some of the diamond eyes admiring it were hardly on level with the table, and a few were languishing in timid wonder on the bosoms of pretty mothers, aunts, and nurses—made a lively realization of the fancies of childhood.”
Our children today do not have the same experiences as the children Dickens describes. Lights on a tree hardly hold the same wonder when they compete with high definition screens. Imaginations are not ignited with wonder, sitting and staring at twinkling ornaments, when they are stimulated instead by continuous noise from handheld devices. Furthermore, innocent ponderings are interrupted by mature content, flowing into our homes and lives via technology.
Tim Elmore, in his book, Marching Off the Map, describes, “We have now begun to experience a strange paradox in our young: The extinction of childlikeness; the extension of childishness.” He explains that the “infectious flow of information” is exposing our kids to adult topics. As a result, they can “lose (1) their sense of innocence, (2) their sense of wonder and (3) their sense of trust.”
Not only are we losing our child-like wonder today, but also our ability to connect with our environment, the way people used to engage the beauty of simple things like Christmas decorations. Kirsten Weir wrote a fascinating article, “Never a Dull Moment.” She explains how in today's technological world, it's unusual to be stuck with absolutely nothing to do. “Most of us are bombarded by near-constant stimuli such as tweets, texts and a seemingly limitless supply of cat videos right at our fingertips. But all those diversions don't seem to have alleviated society's collective boredom.” She cites Psychologist John Eastman who says the reverse may be true. "These might distract you in the short run, but I think it makes you more susceptible to boredom in the long run, and less able to find ways to engage yourself," he says.
Weir reports that several researchers concluded boredom is best described in terms of attention. “A bored person doesn't just have nothing to do. He or she wants to be stimulated, but is unable, for whatever reason, to connect with his or her environment.” Connecting, and helping others connect, with the environment around us is critical as we seek to develop meaningful moments and lasting memories this Christmas. Most of us are used to our environment stimulating us, and if we are bored, we reach for a device. We have lost some of our ability to connect with each other. When we get together for holiday parties, and family gatherings, we often struggle to stay engaged with the people or activities around us and can be tempted to seek stimulation in our social media feed, text messages, or email notifications.
Creating meaningful memories may require some discipline and planning. We can start by being aware of when we are tempted to pull out our device, instead of engaging with someone who is in the room with us. We have to be intentional in creating focused time for interaction. For example, designing a fun box for phones and encouraging people to drop theirs in during family dinner. Planning some interactive activities (games, discussion questions, collaborative project) can give people tools to engage with each other rather than turning on video games or a movie. We must practice good emotional intelligence by asking questions, engaging others in conversation, and modeling for kids how to build relationships.
In her article, Weir cites researcher Van Tilburg. "We saw that boredom actually increased people's tendency to recall these very nostalgic memories and actually made them feel that life in general was more meaningful." Some boredom is essential to the wonder that Dickens described! It creates room for the most nostalgic and memorable moments to occur and be remembered. So, this Christmas, don’t just hand the kids a device, rather sit down with them to play a board game, decorate cookies, or share stories by the fire. When they complain about being bored, just smile!
Research continues to link the overuse of technology to depression, attention issues, and poor social skills. Many parents and grandparents I talk to feel overwhelmed by the powerful influence of technology in their families and homes. Technology, if not managed, can impair our family’s wellbeing. One of our best defenses against devices controlling our time and relationships is to develop a culture in our homes that encourages healthy technology use. So, how do we go about inspiring a tech-smart family? Here are a few strategies and resources:
Book Jolene to speak to your church, school, or community group on Tech-Smart Parenting or visit the Leading Tomorrow podcast for more on this and related topics!
The following is a guest post by Bill Mann, who writes and speaks on inter-generational mentoring
The next generation (Generation Z, born 1995-2010) are those who have grown up with devices, such as a cell phone or an iPad, readily available. The first are now going to college, while the youngest are in elementary school.
Recently, some of the potential negative impacts of the digital world have been emerging. For those of us who mentor, teach or parent Generation Z, it is critical that we understand these dangers. There are now eight new mental illnesses resulting from internet use. According to Evin Dashevsky, writing in PC World, these disorders, which range from the “benign to destructive,” have just been recognized recently and didn’t even exist in the middle 1990s.
Some of these are variations of older disorders. While some may be familiar with FOMO, one of these new disorders is called “Nomophobia” which is a fear of not having access to your mobile phone (either it crashed, you lost power, or it was lost or stolen). The condition can be severe, as the PC World magazine article notes: “[T]he condition has found its way into the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and has prompted a dedicated Nomophobia treatment program at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, California.”
Another condition is called Cybersickness which results in physical symptoms like nausea and dizziness caused by interacting with things like virtual reality. The next is called “Facebook Depression,” which may be descriptive enough. It comes from the despair that accompanies one watching everyone else have more fun and lead more successful lives than yours.
The next two are described as addictions: “Internet Addiction Disorder” and “Online Gaming Disorder.” The former is descriptive of such an extraordinary use of the internet that it interferes with your daily life. The latter is limited to an unhealthy need to be online playing multiplayer games.
Finally, with the internet, information not otherwise available about medicine is now readily available leading to users having something called “Cyberchondria,” where one is led to believe they have diseases that they found online. Sites like WebMD give enormous amounts of information, resulting in people who may have a simple headache becoming concerned that it might be a brain tumor.
The last is one that I am most concerned about based on what I’ve been learning recently. It’s called the “Google Effect.” It describes how our brains are declining in the ability to retain facts or information because it can be found online via search engines like Google or Bing.
As a result, our brains are changed and we no longer have the ability to retain information as much as prior generations. The number of searches on Google has grown from 9,800 in 1998 to 4.7 trillion today. Since we now have nearly all the information ever created by civilization at our fingertips, our brain functions may be altering how and what we retain. In effect, people have started using Google instead of their brains to store information. Unfortunately, as one writer notes, our brains use information stored in our brains in order to “facilitate critical thinking.”
In his book, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance, author Dr. Nicholas Kardaras likens the addictive effect on young children as being the same as Digital Heroin. He has observed reactions of young children going through signs of withdrawal when denied the access to digital devices, including tantrums as if they were digital junkies.
Heady stuff, and some of it scary since these disorders are new, or at least variations of other disorders. For mentors, it means that we are likely to encounter someone in the next generation who has more than just a mild interaction with the internet or the digital world. As Marvin Brubacher suggests, if that interaction results in addictive behavior, a mentor needs to be able to identify it and help them through it, or at least direct them to counseling.
To mentor the next generation, one needs to understand them. Now, that understanding includes learning about emotional or addictive behaviors which are novel and new. Ryan Terrance put it this way: “Everything in moderation, and there's a perfect balance in this life if we can find it.” Our challenge as mentors and parents is to help our mentees navigate a safe route in the digital world and urge moderation and wisdom in their use of technology.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!