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How Digital Overload Affects Users

Alessio Symons

Alessio Symons

desk with laptop and phones displaying lots of notifications

Most people now carry around a device or sit in front of devices that give them lightning- fast access to world events, as well as instant opportunities to find out exactly what friends, family, and long-lost acquaintances are up to.

All this comes with a pressure on both the individual and on reality itself—after all, people’s curious minds make it very difficult to ignore the allure of all that information at their fingertips. And this pressure is manifesting in frequent checking of the news and of social media. In one study the American Psychological Association found that 10% of people checked the news at least once an hour and 20% admitted that they “constantly” check social media—where both social updates and current affairs now live.

Because nearly everyone in the developed world (and increasingly in the developing world) has a smartphone now—Pew Research suggests this number 94%—the need to stay updated isn’t only desirable, it’s mandatory. Friends expect quick responses to messages, bosses expect problems to be solved at all hours of the day, and being ill-informed about the day’s news can be met with looks of derision.

With so much of our world built around the opinions and actions of others, the impact on people’s mental health is considerable. Many studies on the nature of happiness show that deriving happiness from external factors leaves people vulnerable. As Tim Bono, author of When Likes Aren’t Enough, writes, “when we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control.” So as people’s feelings become increasingly wedded to what they see on their phones—whether it’s the state of the world or feeling like you’re doing better or worse than your peers—rates of anxiety go up and the possibility of long-term happiness and security plummet.

What makes this issue even more complex is that the place people go to solve their problems is often the same place that caused the issue. For example, someone who has read an upsetting news story may well jump to their social media feed to distract themselves, here they see an old acquaintance happily married revealing they’ve just been given their “dream job”, to avoid these negative feelings they may keep scrolling through their account or try and distract themselves further from negative feelings by playing a game. The problem is that they’ve done all of this without taking their eyes off their phone.

In other areas of our lives we all recognize that staying for too long in the place where you received bad news would be toxic, but that’s not how digital experiences are tailored at present. As Professor Monideepa Tarafdar, Professor of Information Systems and Co-Director of the Center for Technological Futures at Lancaster University, puts it “while it might seem counter-intuitive, social media users are continuing to use the same platforms that are causing them stress rather than switching off from them, creating a blurring between the stress caused and compulsive use.” The current product ecosystem is a vicious cycle.

This is compounded further by the sheer number of visuals people see on a daily basis. So much of the content that users consume is designed to grab attention and stick in their brains. This means that the most shocking, and oftentimes graphic, imagery is used to draw people’s eyes. As Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at Sussex University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, observes “the human brain is wired to pay attention to information that scares or unsettles us—a concept known as negativity bias.” This is because in our evolutionary wiring we are programmed to want to see what may harm us in order to understand it and avoid being startled by it. As a result, people’s desire to always be in the know is causing severe mental health challenges, with some reports showing that bystander PTSD from the overload of information is a mounting issue.

There is now a near-constant noisy hum of stress in many people’s brains. This is because using phones has been shown to activate the production of cortisol—the hormone that powers the fight or flight instinct. In fact, David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, has conducted and collected studies “that show people’s cortisol levels are elevated when their phone is in sight or nearby, or when they hear it or even think they hear it…and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.” Only when you reach for your phone and absorb the very content that created the stress in the first place does the stress subside for a moment—only for it to return in stronger doses in the long term.

In the long term, consistent stress is a killer. “Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California. This means that when digital product builders are dragging attention toward people’s phones, without considering the ethical implications their work excaberates conditions such as: migraines, depression, heartburn, insomnia, weakened immune system, heart disease, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, fertility problems, stomach ache, reduced sex drive, muscle detoriation, and more.

The need to stay in the know about everything is overloading and exhausting people emotionally and chemically. In an age where we are often told that it’s possible to do and be everything at once, with complete control over our own destinies, the tools in our hands are fuelling this false narrative. It was nearly 400 years ago that Shakespeare wrote that “it (life) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Today, the sound and fury of modern life is creating noise and stress, overloading “it” until it’s impossible to tell what anything might signify.

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