The Problems Underneath It All

If you’re reading this article, you (like me) probably have a good life. Your biggest problems are probably things like figuring out which Netflix Original series you should watch this weekend, or whether to order takeout or stir-fry up some grass fed beef and kale for dinner.

I’m not saying this to be rude or point out how I’m different. I’m in the same exact boat as you.

I’m saying all of this to make a point — in the scope of human history, we have it pretty darn good. Our problems don’t consist of finding enough food or surviving through the winter. And those of us on this list are (probably) in the enviable position of not having to live from paycheck to paycheck. We’re high on the hog, so to speak.

But that doesn’t mean our lives are perfect. Certain parts of our existence have gotten worse. Our community lives aren’t as strong as they used to be. Civic trust and engagement are at an all-time low.

In other words, the social aspects of our lives are in a precarious position.

In addition, by moving on from some of the lower level problems of life (surviving, eating, etc.), we’re now faced with some of the hairy, high-level concerns of existence: am I living up to my purpose? Have I found true love? and so on.

And these concerns are stressful. Really stressful. This is, in part, due to the fact that they’re so nebulous. They’re fuzzy, unformed. We don’t feel like we’re living our purpose on some deep level, and so we have this feeling of unease we can’t quite put a finger on. Or we constantly feel a little anxious and stressed, but we can’t make the connection between this and something like the lack of community where we live. After all, it’s hard to see a negative — the absence of something.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t come up with some explanation, no matter how wrong it may be, for what we’re feeling and going through. We humans are master explainers, master storytellers. We come up with causal explanations for everything. It’s just what we do.

And so we look around our environment for the cause of this anxiety that plagues us… and what do you think stands out?

First, things that are new. They stand out.

Second, THINGS pop out — not the lack of things.

Third, things that are dynamic, ever-changing. Movement draws and keeps our attention.

Can you think of anything that fits those three criteria?

Technology.

Tech is what’s new–shiny.

It’s flashy and easy to see. It doesn’t really meld into the background.

And it’s ever evolving and changing. It’s rare that some piece of technology is installed in our environment and just sits there for decades, untouched. Just walk into any office in America–the computers are changed at least once every 2 years (often more frequently).

For these reasons, tech is almost always top of mind, and it’s easy to point a blaming finger at.

This has happened before (think Luddites), and it will happen again. But just because something is fashionable doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Which leads to my next question: Do you fidget?

Do you ever bite your nails?

When you’re stressed do you like to just get some running shoes on and just sprint as long and as hard as possible?

All of us have stress coping mechanisms — things we do to feel better about our situation. Some people crack their knuckles, some people smoke. Others eat. Others play video games.

If you’re really, really stressed do you think you’ll do these things more or less?

More, obviously.

So, let’s say that due to the degradation of civic engagement and community trust and bad diet, etc. you just feel… bad. Uneasy. Anxious. But you don’t really know why. You start playing a game that makes you feel better. It’s a small part of your life where you have some degree of control, and you connect with really cool people while you’re playing it. You guys start to log into the game every day and hang out. The game gives you a clear sense of progress. You’re leveling up, getting better, and becoming the leader of your online tribe.Your friends and family start to get worried. They see that you’re kind of nervous and, from what they can see, you’re spending an awfully large amount of time playing that game… They think you’re addicted, and that your “game addiction” is causing the anxiety.

But, from the picture I painted, do you think that’s really the case?

This, in my mind, is a clear case of correlation being mistaken for causation.

Your game play increases with your stress, but it’s not the cause of it. In fact, it’s an attempt by you to alleviate the discomfort you feel.

I think that we’re seeing the same thing with “tech addiction”. We naturally assume that X (tech) causes Y (stress) when some third factor (or many factors), Z, is actually the driving force behind Y.

Just look at the state of the world today. We have unprecedented political polarization, growing inequality, and automation (and crummy policies) causing the destruction of millions of jobs. It’s a stressful time to be alive, so it’s understandable that people will look for outlets and coping mechanisms. We might even engage in behaviors that some consider “addictive” or inappropriate, such as playing video games, scrolling through our social network news feeds, and logging many many hours in other online communities (like Reddit).**

Does that mean that these things are the problem? No, probably not. They’re coping mechanisms. If you take them away, people will just find other ways to let out that steam and gain a sense of control and comfort. Those things may be “better” and more productive, or they might be much worse (drugs, etc.). In fact, millennials are using fewer drugs than previous generations, but spending much more time on their smartphones:

But researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones?

The possibility is worth exploring, they say, because use of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the same period that drug use has declined. This correlation does not mean that one phenomenon is causing the other, but scientists say interactive media appears to play to similar impulses as drug experimentation, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.

Or it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying.

So, I ask you: Do smartphones *really* seem like the problem? Are these “addictions” causing harm? Or are they merely stress relief mechanisms, improperly maligned due to sloppy thinking (correlation does not equal causation)?

You know how I feel. What do you think?

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**We know that in times of stress people seek out social support, so you would expect social media use to rise in times of stress–both chronic and acute.



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