It is too early on a Monday morning and the train is a sea of bowed heads and hunched shoulders. The automated voice instructing the doors to shut echoes into the silence. Poorly lit screens reflect the cables that connect almost every person’s head to a phone. Somewhere down the carriage, a toddler is telling the raindrops on the window about Peppa Pig’s love for muddy puddles.
The university students stand out from the rest of the crowd: signs of exhaustion painted in dark streaks under their eyes; heavy bags of different sizes strung across shoulders; phones grasped in every hand, at the ready to avoid any awkward and unplanned interactions.
We seem to be living in a semi-constant state of symbiosis with our phones: taking them out when we want to avoid looking lonely as we wait for our friends, pretending to answer a call as we walk down the street, putting our earphones in without ever playing music through them… They seem to make us feel safe, connected and surrounded by things we can control. But if we have so much control over how we interact with people, why is it that anxiety figures seem to have been on a steady climb over the last few years?
A national survey conducted by Headspace, completed by thousands of tertiary students aged 17 to 25, found that 79 per cent of students felt anxious and a staggering 83 per cent felt stressed. This is significantly higher from the reported 18 per cent of students that felt overwhelming anxiety in 1985, cited in the article by Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary titled Can’t fight this feeling: technology and teen anxiety.
Dr Dennis-Tiwary states that “these numbers are rising due to the unique demands placed … by social media and digital technology, such as the trade-off between screen time and in-person social interactions”.
Curious to understand why there could be such a disparity between online and offline social interactions, I interviewed clinical psychologist, Dr Ann Rowe. Sitting with her dog snoring lightly at our feet, Dr Rowe reiterated the point, claiming “online you have that illusion that you’ve got all these connections when you don’t really”.
Many students who find it difficult to interact with people face-to-face turn to digital and online platforms to find their connections. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, speaking to psychologist and research associate Dr Dominika Kwaznicka, she stated: “you may be avoiding social connection because it’s hard for you to connect, but then you’re not developing the skills to make those connections”.
Dr Rowe explained:
There are times in your life where the brain develops and prunes off the neural pathways that it doesn’t need … So, if you’re not communicating and using that [skill to socialise face-to-face], there’s a likelihood that, while you’re not going to totally lose that function, the pathways could potentially get pruned away.
This then can further the anxiety felt by the individual as they may feel afraid of starting a conversation or interacting with people in face-to-face situations. Having the neural connections underdeveloped leaves the individual unprepared to deal with face-to-face social interactions. This feeds into a vicious cycle as, feeling unprepared and vulnerable, the individual avoids the interaction by instead of engaging with their phone, leaving them even more unprepared for any future social interaction.
When we carry our phones, we carry with us a constant potential connection, our various social media platforms pinging and buzzing with notifications in our pockets. We have to be on perpetual alert, prepared to answer a comment, or like a picture, or retweet the next best quote from a celebrity that lives half the world away.
Dr Kwaznicka explains the volatility of constantly having our phone with us:
Reaching for our phones [has become] like a behaviour, it’s automatic. I will reach to get my phone and I don’t even remember what I picked it up for … you may be going to check the time and you see a notification from Facebook, and so you go on Facebook, and then you get another notification and so on. And you end up in a vicious cycle, using a lot of time going through various things when you’d originally just wanted to check the time.
As Dr Rowe had explained, and confirmed by a case study conducted in Serbia, it is “the intensity and modality of mobile phone use … that can influence pathways leading to mental health problems in the university student population”.
Another study conducted in the U.S. speculated that the rise in feelings of anxiety “may in part be because … exposure to highly curated, unrealistic portrayals on social media may give people the impression that others are living happier more connected lives, which may make them feel more socially isolated in comparison”.
Our phones have become like little windows to a different world, heightening within us a desire for perfection, validation and communication. But these windows are not all bad, for people who experience difficulty in establishing social connections face-to-face, they are like a loop-hole in the constraints of anxiety.
One such student, Ebony Bryant, is a self-proclaimed introvert. We sat together on the abandoned-looking grey couches in the corner of the humanities building, her long brown hair hanging in threads covering her face.
“I definitely find it a lot easier online, I guess, in terms of approaching people,” she said. “When it comes to introducing myself to people in real life, I don’t like it. Probably because they are getting more than just my words. Online it’s more controlled and, generally, if you are talking to someone it’s because you have a similar interest that you are aware of. Even with phone calls and texting, I prefer texting. It’s a bit more convenient and you don’t have to deal with people’s issues… I guess online gives you multiple exits.”
Ebony has various friends spread throughout the world, in addition to those living in Perth. These, she met through a social media communication platform called Amino and live far as the U.S., the U.K., Chile and Malaysia.
When asked who she feels more connected to, she said,
It depends, I’ll be a lot closer with my friends in person than online because I’ll actually talk to them more. But in terms of first contact or expressing that first step, it’s a lot easier online. Online forums are generally tailored to your interests, so you can find people who have those interests, while in person people might find those things weird. Online it’s pretty easy to find those people.
It became apparent that understanding the origin of the anxiety of being vulnerable and interacting with others, is, paradoxically, both simple and complex. Obstacles such as shyness or introversion can be big factors in maintaining a quiet or reserved disposition. But that didn’t clear up why everyone will quickly take out their phone when left in a semi-uncomfortable situation.
I wondered if more extroverted people acted in similar ways or if it was simply a safety mechanism for avoiding losing control over the situations one engaged with.
Sitting with the former chief editor of Grok, Jay Anderson, in a brightly-lit café on campus, surrounded by noise, the distinction between the two personalities could not have been more evident.
“I definitely find it easier to talk to people in person,” he said. “If I have a task for work then [I will] usually use social media, but if I want to talk to someone in a meaningful manner, then in person… But meeting people online and then meeting them in person after, I find that quite odd. All the friends I have on social media I’ve met in person.”
Jay was animated and loud, Ebony was calm and quiet, and yet there was a key underlying similarity. Both students immediately took out their phones when faced with new surroundings or having to wait for something.
Jay explained, “I just pull out my phone because then it looks like I’m not just standing there… it becomes a form of protection almost. I used to be quite anxious when I was younger, I was very late on social media on top of that, but I guess it helped me become more social in some ways.”
The complication in the research claiming that both phones and social media are bad is that there are many benefits from having a phone, for being connected with people that are not close by. It can help those that have crippling anxiety to find a friend. The danger lies in only and exclusively having connections online. We are relational beings and require social connections to maintain our well-being.
Feelings of anxiety can’t always be avoided or battled against, and there is help for those who feel they can’t do much about it. But maybe, we can teach ourselves to look up instead of hunching our shoulders and keeping our gaze down.