By Shreya Ramakrishnan

Walking into a room full of people you don’t know can be one of the most terrifying, yet normal, experiences we all face today. For so long, there was nothing we could do about this awkward situation that we were stuck in. That is, until our savior, the smartphone, came along. Now rather than struggling through the uncomfortable silences and the “what school do you go to?”, we can comfortably disappear behind our screens. Shielded from the hostile world around us. Little do we realize that in escaping one hostile environment, we throw ourselves directly into another.

For nearly a decade, scientists have been unable to pinpoint causes of the mental illness epidemic that was sweeping the nation with nearly 20 percent of our teenage population suffering from a mental illness. However, numerous studies that were conducted  have recently zeroed in on a key factor that fosters these issues in young adults all over the nation smartphone use and the implications that it brings.  

Studies have shown crucial findings regarding the impact of smartphone usage and social media on mental health, the most significant being that compulsive or excessive smartphone use can cause or worsen anxiety and depression. Individuals have reported feelings of withdrawal when being away from their phones for too long very similar to the withdrawal effects of drug addicts.

The way that a cell phone addiction works is nearly identical to the way drug addiction or alcoholism works. As humans use their brains more, neural pathways form which are just preferred and commonly used signals sent through the brain. For many years, scientist believed that these pathways became fully developed by adulthood, however, it is a recent scientific development that these pathways change overtime as new pathways are formed by new actions. This idea is called Neural Plasticity or Synaptic Plasticity.

The brain produces neurotransmitters on their own to carry signals, the neurotransmitters are carried down the axon of the neuron and are pumped out into the synaptic cleft by a transporter. Once there are enough neurotransmitters in the cleft, the brain will send a signal to stop pumping out more transmitters. Also, once their purpose has been served and they have transmitted the message, either a degradation enzyme breaks them down or they are recycled through a pump. However, most addictive drugs will either block the signal in the brain that stops neurotransmitter production or block the recycling pump. This leads to a prolonged happy feeling that leads to feelings of withdrawal when it is gone. Similarly, when people overuse social media, their neural pathways adjust similarly and they also become addicted. Seeing the notification triggers an increase in the amount of neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft, similar to when a drug addict is high. However, rather than physically being addicted to a drug, they are addicted to the feeling of validation that come from the likes and comments.

Diagram of the function of a generic neurotransmitter system (Wikimedia/NIDA)

Issues like these are considered to be macro problems for society to resolve; however, it often goes unrealized that these problems exist in our own communities as well. Junior Jasmine Sheu, who suffers from FOMO (or fear of missing out), explained the emotions running through her head when she doesn’t check social media.

“I feel like if I don’t check social media it seems like I’m missing out on all these updates about my friends,” Sheu said. “Sometimes, seeing what other people are doing makes me question what I’m doing with my own life.”

This is a typical response for some people. Studies have shown that feelings of anxiety and depression are aggravated by FOMO. The idea behind FOMO is that people feel as if they are missing out when they do not check social media; however, in checking social media, they begin to compare themselves to others and feel even more insecure. In both cases, whether they check social media or not, they feel a greater sense of social anxiety and insecurity.

While cell phones can cause significant anxiety, they also exist as a comfort object to a certain extent. A recent UC Irvine-led study discovered that the possession of a smartphone in a socially stressful situation can counteract feelings of exclusion and isolation. In the study, there were three experimental groups placed in a socially uncomfortable situation. Before beginning the study, participants filled out a questionnaire and gave saliva samples. During the study, the three groups of participants were unknowingly placed in a room with two new people who excluded the participant. One of the test groups was not allowed to use or even have their phones, another group was allowed to have their phones but not use them and the final group was allowed to use their phones. After the experiment, participants were asked to describe their emotional state as well as give more DNA samples. The results of the study showed that the groups who were allowed cell phone use exhibited significantly lower levels of stress hormones.

“Our results suggest that the mere presence of a phone, not necessarily actually using it, can buffer against the negative experience and effects of social exclusion,” lead author John Hunter, a UCI Ph.D. candidate in psychology and social behavior, said. “It could be that possessing your phone is a reminder of your support system, symbolically and literally allowing you to connect with others outside your immediate surroundings.”

Junior Anika Mittal agrees with this opinion.

“For me, a socially awkward situation would be me in a crowded room with nobody to talk to,” Mittal said. “First I would look around to see if there is anyone who looks nice, but most of the time actually, I would look at my phone.”

For some, such as Mittal, cell phones act a comfort object or a “security blanket” as Mittal puts it. Smartphones allow people to be shielded from their uncomfortable situations, rather than being forced to interact with new people and face potential rejection.

Student Advocate, Richard Prinz, has also seen similar tendencies in teenagers. Prinz believes that face to face interactions are necessary to the socio emotional development that is used in the real world. He says that, often, the overuse of technology and smartphones has prevented people from developing those life skills.

“I have met people who prefer online relationships to personal relationships and that saddens me because a lot of the research shows that we need personal contact with people,” Prinz said.

While cell phones can cost students valuable face to face interactions, they provide another medium for expression and connection through social media. Some students, such as junior Kirtana Ummethala, find their passions and use social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram to help expand that or gain exposure. Ummethala had always had a passion for photography and decided to start her photography Instagram account as a way to share her art with others.

“I’ve always had an interest in art and colors but I got into photography after an eighth grade assignment where we had to explore photography,” Ummethala said. “My interests in portrait photography came from a day where my friends and I decided to do a photoshoot and I learned that I had a natural aptitude for framing and displaying people.”

Ummethala believes that social media is a good way to promote her service and to find potential clients. She says that she has never experienced negativity on Instagram, stating that all the feedback she has gotten has been incredibly supportive and kind.

Mittal also reports similar experiences on social media, receiving mostly positive comments and support from her friends. However, Mittal believes that social media is detrimental to most people’s mental health, citing her observations on reactions of many close to her to social media.

“[It] causes people to compare themselves to others,” Mittal said. “It’s a glorified version of your life; it’s not really what your life is. You portray your life as something way better than what it actually is.”

To her, she believes that this perfect life that people portray can negatively impact other people’s self esteem, making them question their own worth. In addition to this, this fake, perfect world that people prefer to live in costs them time and distracts them from learning valuable life skills, such as face to face interactions that are crucial to survive in the real world.

Overall, smartphones have their values, especially in the benefits of social media and its role as a comfort object in uncomfortable social situations. However, it also poses threats to mental well being by inducing FOMO, depression and anxiety. It has also deprived us of the opportunity to engage in real life face to face interactions that are crucial to our learning to function in society.

“Social media and smartphones are a double edged sword,” Sheu said. “On one hand, they allow us to connect with our friends and share our happy moments with the world, but on the other hand, it can also give us a lot of anxiety and depression. I feel like the only way to gain from this is to use it carefully and to make sure that it doesn’t take away from our real life experiences.”

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