One of the most troubling things about technology is its correlation with increased rates of depression, particularly in people who spend a lot of time on computers. It’s not surprising though, once you realize that computers can ruin our sleep habits and affect us in other ways mentally.
To be clear, we want to make a distinction between clinical depression and seasonal depression. The former is persistent while the latter is temporarily brought on by changes in season (making it easier to treat, such as through the use of light therapy lamps).
This article is more about tech and clinical depression.
That being said, we aren’t saying that technology causes depression. Rather, there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest that technology can worsen depression. All we want to do is make you more aware of technology’s potential impact on you.
Note: We are not medical experts. If you think you may be depressed or are having trouble coping with your depression, always consult your doctor first and foremost.
1. The Internet
There’s no denying that the Internet has been the most influential force on society in the past hundred years — perhaps even in all of human history. Never before have we had such unprecedented access to news, knowledge, and entertainment from cultures all around the world.
At the same time, this wealth of access has led to something called digital information overload, and our minds simply aren’t able to handle that kind of constant influx of information without making some big changes along the way.
When we subject ourselves to information overload, our brains actually adapt to it — by learning to expect that kind of constant stimulation. That’s why when you step away from the Internet, life feels so slow and boring. This phenomenon is called novelty addiction (also known as “popcorn brain”).
Furthermore, information overload isn’t just about the amount of data that we have to process, but also the variety of data that we have to sort through. Because the brain grows accustomed to overstimulation, we start looking for things that are “new” — things we’ve never seen before.
According to psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino:
When overload is chronic, you live in a state of unresolved stress and anxiety that you can’t meet ongoing demands to process more information.
In fact, studies on Internet-related depression have been around as early as 2010, such as when Leeds University found a potential link between Internet use and depression:
Our research indicates that excessive internet use is associated with depression, but what we don’t know is which comes first — are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?
This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction
To be fair, the Internet can be used to help depression, as evidenced by the wide number of online support groups and communities that exist to help those going through depression. Even so, we can’t ignore the possibility that the Internet — and everything it contains — is aggravating that same depression.
Smartphone addiction is basically a subset of Internet addiction, but it is so prevalent today that it deserves to be in its own category. We love our smartphones, and if we were asked to give them up for even a day, I doubt many of us would be able to without feeling that itch.
Thanks to the smartphone, we can take the Internet everywhere we go. We’re always connected, never more than a tap away from viewing another webpage or sending another text message. And while some say that this hyperconnectedness is good, one has to wonder: Is it really?
In 2012, the University of Gothenburg found that heavy smartphone use has a real impact on physical and mental health:
Heavy cell phone use showed an increase in sleep disorders in men and an increase in depressive symptoms in both men and women.
A combination of both heavy computer use and heavy mobile use makes the associations even stronger.
And in 2015, a study by Baylor University may have pinpointed why people are so addicted to their smartphones:
The data revealed that those who use their smartphones more frequently are more prone to moodiness, materialism and temperamental behavior, and are less able to focus their attention on the task at hand… Unsurprisingly, people with impulsive personalities were also more prone to addictive smartphone use.
Much like a variety of substance addictions, cell phone addiction may be an attempt at mood repair… Incessant checking of emails, sending texts, tweeting, and surfing the web may act as pacifiers for the unstable individual distracting him or herself from the worries of the day and providing solace, albeit temporarily, from such concerns.
In short, smartphone addiction — and everything that entails, such as email addiction — is one way that depressive folks seek out things that will hopefully make them less depressed. Unfortunately, this rarely helps. Instead, it’s merely a distraction at best.
If you think you’re addicted to your smartphone, here’s a checklist of potential warning signs. If you know you’re addicted to your smartphone, there are apps out there that can help you use your phone less over time.
3. Social Media
Social media is a wonderful thing, at least when used with caution. It allows us to stay connected with friends and family, to have fun and interesting discussions, and to stay on top of news, trends, and other social phenomena. These are all good things.
But here’s something you may not realize: for a lot of people, visiting a site like Facebook can actually result in a negative mood shift. As you see the highlights of other people’s lives, you may feel envious — and too much envy can lead to depression.
People have suspected this for quite some time, but in 2015, a study by the University of Missouri pretty much confirmed it:
If Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship — things that cause envy among users — use of the site can lead to feelings of depression.
We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression
The hyperconnectedness of social media is also an issue, particularly when users start feeling anxious whenever they have to disconnect from their social bubbles. You know it’s bad when people have to concoct colloquial terms to describe this, including FOMO (“fear of missing out”) and nomophobia (fear of being without your phone).
In short, social media is great because it opens up so many social opportunities that weren’t possible before, but it also presents us with unrealistic ideas of how others are living their lives — and when we feel like we’re falling behind, it can aggravate feelings of depression.
So before it gets any worse, check out our list of symptoms that may indicate you’re overdosing on social media.
When we ran a poll on Internet pornography use, the results were surprising yet expected. From a sample size of 793, 37% said they watched “probably once a week”, 33% said they watched “every day without fail”, and 10% said they watched “multiple times every day”.
In total, that means 80% of people who responded to the poll watched porn on a weekly basis at the very least. There wasn’t any scientific rigor in the polling method, but it works well enough as a rough estimate, and the results are undeniable: a lot of people watch porn.
The bad news is that porn has the ability to change the way the brain operates, even going as far as rewiring neural pathways and altering behaviors and personalities:
Scientists have discovered that your brain is a lot like a never-ending game of Tetris, constantly laying down new pathways based on your experiences.
Just like other addictive substances, porn floods the brain with dopamine. But since the brain gets overwhelmed by the constant overload of chemicals that comes with consistent porn use, it fights back by taking away some of its dopamine receptors.
As a frequent porn user’s brain acclimates to the new levels of dopamine flooding through it, regular activities that would normally set off a burst of dopamine and make the person feel happy aren’t strong enough to register much anymore, leaving the user feeling down or uneasy whenever they go for a while without looking at porn.
The good news is that this damage to the brain doesn’t have to be permanent:
Neuroplasticity works both ways. That means that the damage to the brain can be undone when someone gets away from unhealthy behaviors.
Now obviously pornography doesn’t guarantee depression, but it can certainly exacerbate it. People are quick to share anecdotes of how much they watch porn and yet aren’t depressed, but there are just as many anecdotes from people who found victory over their depression by quitting porn.
Want to see these anecdotes for yourself? Check out /r/NoFap and /r/PornFree on Reddit, two communities of people who have sworn off porn as one of many steps toward personal growth and self-improvement.
One other area of the Internet that tends to worsen depression is gaming. Obviously it’s possible to play and enjoy games in moderation, but I’ve personally overcome video game addiction at least twice in my life, and I’m not the only one, so I think it’s important that we recognize it as a real issue.
According to a study in 2012, a link was found between online gamers and severity of depression:
The online gamers with longer weekly gaming hours tended to have a longer history of online gaming, and more severe depressive, social phobic, and internet addiction symptoms.
Female online gamers had fewer weekly online gaming hours and a shorter previous online gaming history, but tended to have more severe somatic, pain, and social phobic symptoms.
The predictors for depression were higher social phobic symptom, higher internet addiction symptoms, longer online gaming hours, and female gender.
Like most forms of entertainment, video games are widely considered to be a form of escapism. For some, this means an escape from personal responsibilities. For others, it’s a way to distract from the unpleasant aspects of real life, such as one’s general state of unhappiness.
In some cases, socializing in an online game can help address the root issues behind one’s depression, but this isn’t always true. The mindless grinding in an MMORPG or the frequent dopamine hits in a competitive game can provide temporary relief, but at the expense of true resolution.
Like most distractions, online games simply postpone the depression. And when gaming turns into an addiction, it could result in increased friction in relationships, damage to self-esteem, physical and mental deterioration, and feelings of shame or regret — all of which could compound one’s depressive symptoms.
The Good News: Depression Isn’t the End
If you’re feeling depressed right now, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts, stop what you’re doing and check out these online resources for severe depression. We may not have depression-busting neural implants yet, but it can still be treated with the help of professionals!
On the other hand, if you only feel mildly depressed, then there are some things you can do to lessen the burden, such as pursuing a hobby that’s proven to make you happier. It’s amazing what a little bit of recreation can do for the soul.
Do you use technology as a way to cope with depression? What has worked out well for you? What hasn’t? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: Tired Woman on Laptop by conrado via Shutterstock, Smartphone Slave by Simos via Shutterstock, Facebook Notifications by Jayson Photography via Shutterstock, Porn Keyboard by fredex via Shutterstock, Computer Game by Blackregis via Shutterstock