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Technology giveth, technology taketh away

In a time of uninterrupted digital communication, are we mentally worse off?
by Luavut Zahid

For many people, 2020 started with anxiety over how they would be managing their lives better. We let go of humorous resolutions and opted for serious reflection. Why? Because it seemed like the ‘internet’ thing to do.

Let’s be honest though. Both millennials (Generation Y) and Generation Z are heading into the next decade with depression and despair. We’re chasing perfection and failing, while watching the world torch itself, one selfie at a time.

A hard problem?

Data–which is insufficient at best–shows that mental health issues abound in the modern world. A 2015 study by Mental Health Pakistan notes that mental health doesn’t get the attention it deserves within the country. On average, there is only one psychiatrist for around 10,000 people, and one child psychiatrist for four million children. For a country of more than 200 million people, we only have four psychiatric hospitals, and those too placed in the major cities.

More recent reports suggest that one-third of Pakistan’s population suffers from anxiety. It gets worse. The numbers on suicide are troubling too, with 71% ending their lives because of depression, and another 12% because of anxiety.

Do these rising numbers somehow correlate to our hyperconnected world? From infoxication to digital fatigue, there are many ways that technology overwhelms us all. And I decided to speak to the people it impacts the most to understand how they viewed the relationship between mental health and technology. Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the respondents.

Khalid* is a 28-year-old digital marketer whose father had a typical nine-to-five job with no laptop to comb through his files at night. “Short of stopping by our house there was no way his boss could find him.”

Such disengagement from work seems like a distant memory. Khalid feels that being connected all the time has had serious consequences on maintaining a semblance of work-life balance. Technology plays a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game with us; it makes our jobs easier with its many tools, and simultaneously breaks us down by giving our employers too much access. As industries become overly competitive, most people have had no choice but to put in more hours, even when it means compromising on their personal lives.

“I feel trapped often. I don’t think I have a choice and my life is being guided by everything that’s outside of me,” he shrugs despondently.

Informing ourselves to death

In a series of lectures in the 1990s, Neil Postman warned about a culture hyper-focused on the creation of information without necessarily categorizing it. Given our world that is already so incomprehensible, we strike a Faustian bargain with technology, whereby, we think we know a lot but understand little. Being informed doesn’t always make life easier, and this information overload is instead creating a group of extremely jaded individuals.

There was a time when conversations about religion, politics and current affairs began and ended in people’s drawing rooms. Now however, these conversations take place in digital spaces, where they often morph into digital mobs ready to pounce on a conflicting opinion.

When Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) rose to prominence during the most recent general elections, many lauded youngsters for being better informed than their parents. The vote was seen as being more substantial because the young voter populace was supposedly better informed and knew what it was voting for, thanks in part to a profusion of online sources. But the conversations on social media that surrounded the election often displayed a toxic tinge.

Student activism of the past gave way to angry status updates and derogatory political memes, mostly vector sum of social media filter bubbles. “The politicised people in our generation were a part of student unions or rallies. That is not the case with this lot. And I feel that is also the reason they are so disillusioned with the world around them. Everyone ‘knows’ everything, everyone tries to understand everything,” proclaims Masood*, a father of three millennials.

Meme-ing our way out

Generation Y and Z might be dealing with problems the previous generation didn’t have to think about, however, it is not the challenges rather the abundance of choices that makes things harder.  Maria*, a 33-year-old PhD student based in Australia believes that having more control and responsibility also makes life difficult.

“We have the choice that our parents, particularly mothers, never had, i.e. we are aware of mental health and wellbeing and we have the means to change our circumstances. It’s easier to accept a difficult situation when there is no option, but much harder when you have to change the situation with the resources at your disposal,” she said.

On any given day, we use digital tools to
streamline our life, one app at a time.

Despite the “log kya kahaingay” (what will people say) of it all, millennials and their successors are acutely aware of their mental health problems, and don’t shy away from talking about it. Sometimes, they deal with it by making funny memes. It’s almost as if humor has been chosen as the defence mechanism of choice. When the world has nothing but bad news to offer, the memes come easy.

Awareness and despair

Maha Abbasi, a mental health counsellor, agrees that both Generation Y and Z are looking at many challenges, but disagrees that they are worse off.

“Currently, as we fight to eradicate the stigma in seeking help, more people are likely to report facing mental health concerns and reach out to therapists for help. Everything is not shrugged off as ‘life’. To comment based on limited data of people and their mental health previously, I believe it would be unfair to draw the conclusion that the current generation is worse off. They’re just more likely to ask for help,” she said.

Maha believes that technology has helped people find the right kind of information to be able to look for help, but it’s the same technology that makes them feel inadequate.

“Clients often walk in having googled a diagnosis for themselves before the first session. Although knowledge can give one power but little knowledge can be dangerous in this case. At the same time, often clients in my therapy room complain of ‘not doing enough’ in life because the internet shows them all that ‘others’ are doing,” Maha explained, adding that while social media helps make connections, it can also make human beings feel incredibly isolated.

This feeling for not doing enough is one that permeates the conscience of most people. Zunaira Nadeem, an educator from Karachi, started using social media a decade ago. At the time it felt like an exciting new domain, however, in due course she realized its superficiality was making her question her own existence and triggering feelings of anxiety and depression. She often felt the pressure of not doing enough or not being perfect.

As an educator, Zunaira observes first hand how technology controls her students in the classroom: “My students generally need to now live their lives through phones, including their educational lives. If a class is fun, a teacher is engaging, then it needs to be featured in their social media life, too!”

The need for students to constantly find the next ‘cool’ thing is unsettling for Zunaira, who feels that her students’ priorities have changed, and not for the better. She believes our online presence has turned our existence into a series of shorts. We have more intimate access to each other’s lives.

“More eyeballs means more pressure. This is something the previous generation didn’t have to deal with. They had anonymity, in the sense that their actions were not under constant observation like ours are,” she says.

Zunaira’s observations are not far from the mark. A study by University of Waterloo found that our generation has developed an obsession with being perfect, noting this need for perfection results in stress, anxiety, depression, and can even lead to suicide.

Whereas for some, social media allows people to wear masks and show the best of themselves, essentially building the narrative of an instagram-perfect world,  for others, it provides avenues to safer digital spaces in Maha’s opinion.

At any given time of the day, thousands upon
thousands of people use technology to
simultaneously be happy and miserable.

“More online communities are available for mental health support and create a sense of belonging and a space in the world. Like everything, technology and social media is a double-edged sword and can be used for either purpose.”

Looking at solutions

Avoiding technology is no longer an option. It is too deeply embedded in our lives for us to be able to quit cold turkey. On any given day, we use digital tools to streamline our life, one app at a time.

For instance, I use Facebook groups to ask questions about anything from finding the right flowers for a friend in another city, to figuring out when the next sale will hit the stands. Software such as Asana helps me make my day more productive, while Slack keeps me connected to my team throughout the day.

Using technology to be more productive isn’t just something that millennials or their successors do. Children are using their phones to do math homework-the stuff that gave me nightmares growing up can now be dealt with through a fun app!

To help tackle the more harmful side effects of digital spaces, there are measures that people can take to manage their mental health better while staying plugged in.

In the last few years alone, several digital solutions have popped up. Tech-enabled startups such as Sehat Kahani, Pliro and RelieveNow offer help you can find in a few clicks. You can sign up for any one of these services and find relevant and appropriate healthcare professionals.

RelieveNow, which is solely focused on mental health was created just two years ago. Amna Asif, the CEO and founder, developed the startup while tackling anxiety herself. Whereas she was able to successfully overcome her anxiety because of a strong support system, she realized that the same would not be true for many others.

Her concern is not ill founded. As a group, millennials are being diagnosed with depression at an alarmingly faster pace than any other with a 47% hike in major-depression diagnoses since 2013. We have also been labelled the “loneliest generation”. And it doesn’t help that our lives are intertwined with technology. Technology forces us to open our eyes wide and observe both our own reality and that of the world, often triggering feelings of helplessness at how little control we have on either one.

It is curious, hence, that millennials use the same technology that sees them grappling with loneliness, to find support systems. In the two years that RelieveNow has been in operation, Amna has seen a drastic jump in the number of people looking for help.

“The first time we did an event only 20-30 people showed up. Last year we hosted a series of events for the World Mental Health Day campaign. The total audience that showed up was between 900-1,000 people,” she said.

Globally, the effects are starting to be felt as well, with a significant increase in conversations around how tech companies and their products impact us. People are now looking to unplug more than ever. And as Silicon Valley makes the headlines one bad product/policy after the other, its next big move seems to be to offer a solution to the problems it has helped create: digital wellbeing features.

Google has introduced several Digital Wellbeing settings for its phones, while OnePlus offers its users the Zen Mode, which lets users take a break and indulge in a digital detox. Even iPhones offer simple changes that can help limit usage, such as making your screen go from full colour to a grayscale version, prompting the user to disengage with their phone more than usual.

Whether these measures are sufficient to handle the complexity of mental health’s relationship with technology, it’s hard to say. Depending on how one looks at it, technology is neither good nor bad. At any given time of the day, thousands upon thousands of people use it to simultaneously be happy and miserable. One person may scroll through their newsfeed on Facebook and find nothing but bad news, while another person may open specific groups on art therapy and find nothing but uplifting material. For people who already have too much going on, help and support may just be a click away.

In an age of information overload, giving up social media and technology could very well be compared to giving up paved roads, filtered water or electricity itself.

So what does one do to tackle a necessary evil?

For starters, we can choose to be kinder to ourselves. It is important to recognise that no matter how perfect anyone’s life is online, it isn’t ours and our struggle will always look different. We must use technology with a serious focus on self-awareness, and develop solid boundaries and limits of how often and how deeply we engage with digital tools and spaces. Only by doing this can we find the right balance.

Until then we have memes to keep us company.

Luavut Zahid is a journalist based in Lahore.