The number of young people in the UK suffering from anxiety has doubled over the last 10 years. Feelings of inadequacy derived by the pressures of social media are more noticeable, and a YouGov survey found that a quarter of young people don’t think life has any purpose. There are a number of factors that we can trace back to this rise in social anxiety. The prominence in youth highlights the unavoidable connection to social media and technology.
Instant gratification and addiction
Similar to alcohol and over-eating, social media triggers a feeling of instant gratification as it induces a mind-numbing effect. This sort of short-term pleasure can easily become addictive and, when overdone, leaves us in a state of anxiety, restlessness and discontent. Unsurprisingly, studies reveal that our relationship to our phones is one of over dependence, and even addiction. According to Ofcom, 75% of people who own a phone use smartphones, yet 33% of smartphone users don’t make phone calls. Our smartphones instead are used as small pieces of our identity and tools to navigating life. We use them for everything, from documenting our lives and communicating with people to using them practically like travel and payments. It’s difficult to imagine a life without one.
A culture of being ‘always-on’
Sociologist Sherry Turkle talks about how our culture has become one that is ‘always-on’ – we are always accessible, and never fully disconnected from the online world. It’s irrational to turn your phone off if you’re not sleeping; we panic when we have low battery; we check emails when we’re not at work; and we scroll endlessly to switch off, whether that’s Instagram, the BBC News app, or Twitter… The fact that we are never able to fully disconnect from the outside world means we are never fully able to switch off and relax.
Compare and despair
Being ‘always-on’ also means that we are continually exposed to the online lives of others that seem to portray their actual lives. This exposure forces people to view their own in comparison, creating a feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). This unceasing unconscious worry that they may be somehow disconnected from the real world for too long or that they are not thriving in life the way other people seem to be, has unsurprisingly created an anxious generation. Thought leader and keynote speaker, Oliver James also discusses the rise in anxiety from the inability to escape from the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ culture around us and within social media.
This then forces people to constantly police their own behaviour and appearance online. Social anxiety is the fear of being seen as somehow less than. Social media is an influx of carefully crafted stories and facades curated as highlight reels. In the short term, this allows people to feel in control of their identity and how they come across, yet in the long term, all it does it add pressure to face-to-face communication. Humans have always performed during social interactions – it’s just what we do – but our awareness of our performance has been heightened with the additional media lens. Today, 1 in 6 young people will experience social anxiety.
The production of our sleep hormone, melatonin, can be blocked by the blue light emitted from our digital screens. According to the Sleep Foundation, spending 1.5 hours on technology before bed can restrict the production of melatonin and cause a shift in our circadian rhythms by an hour (the internal regulation of our sleep cycles). The blue light triggers something in the brain, which wakes us up, making us feel alert.
The Sleep Foundation also found that Generation Z and Y reported to have more severe problems with both technology addiction and lack of sleep. 22% of Generation Z and 18% of Generation Y reported issues with sleeping, compared to only 9% amongst Baby Boomers. It was also found that lack of sleep is both the cause of and result of anxiety – once you enter one cycle, it can be difficult to break out of it.