Taking care of your mental health despite being hyper-connected
This article was written by Faustine M. A million thanks to her!
When I was little, receiving "notifications" from my Tamagotchi was stressful enough. The pets would ask me for food or get sick when I did not pay attention, they constantly needed my attention. I learned to disconnect at an early age, by turning off this little monster thus exercising my "right to disconnect". Today, I am the kind of girl who asks her friends to give her updates on Messenger or WhatsApp group conversations and who chides them when they keep asking for comments on topics that do not seem urgent.
What does it mean to be "hyper-connected"?
I am not the only one that experiences this fatigue, which can be understood by concepts such as "hyper-connectivity" or "infobesity".
Despite the media popularity this term has gained, health care institutions are yet to provide an official definition for it. Nevertheless, it could be defined as being connected to the Internet at anytime and anywhere, due to the omnipresence of screens: computers, tablets, smartphones...
Whether official or not, I feel I am hyper-connected, and I think that those around me are too. Using my smartphone alone takes me between two and a half to three and a half hours a day, based on a time tracking application that measures how much time I spend on each application. I could say it’s the same for my friends: I often ask them to put their mobile phone down when we have discussions, but I wouldn't presume to know how much time some of them spend on their screens!
According to a survey carried out by the BVA Group in April 2019 for the April Foundation (in French), the average amount of time French people spend on their screens is 4.5 hours, and 73% say they are addicted to their smartphones. The study also shows that 33% view the Internet as an overly important part of their daily lives, a score well above that of 2018 (22%).
This increased connectivity to the internet stems from a reward system where dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released every time a person who is connected to the Internet reads a notification or uses a smartphone. When this reward system is deregulated, it results in addiction.
Internet addiction is worsened by the work environment. The constant use of screens, spam, professional requests during and outside of working hours... This is because the competitive strategy of many companies is to "respond to requests in real time", says Nicole Aubert, a sociologist and the author of Le Culte de l'Urgence (in French), in an interview with Le Figaro Santé (in French).
Being hyper-connected is linked to "infobesity", i.e. a stifling or a possibly paralysing information overload, through the mechanism of notifications and "serendipity" that entails being randomly brought to new pages when we navigate from link to link. We no longer have to search for information because it is now forced on us. It is often difficult to deal with the excessive flow of information without suffering consequences that are detrimental to our mental health such as stress, fatigue, or even social isolation.
How hyper-connectivity is linked to our mental health
Several studies have proven that there is a negative link between hyper-connectivity and mental health. A study conducted in August 2019 that focused on a group of young adults shows that smartphone addiction results in an increased risk of loneliness and depression. Another 2017 study showed that depressed teens are negatively affected by social media, as their already fragile self-esteem is further damaged when they compare themselves and their peers to others.
Beyond these direct consequences on mental health, there are other factors associated with hyper-connection. It alters sleep patterns, disrupts our diet by inducing higher consumption levels, and promotes physical inactivity, according to a report (in French) by the French Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the French Academy of Technology, published in April 2019.
Hyper-connectivity and your mental health: how to manage both!
According to Dr David Greenfield, a medical director and the founder of the Centre for Internet and Technology Addiction, in an interview with Vice (in French), the first step is becoming aware of the negative consequences of being hyperconnected. Then, accepting the fact that physically separating yourself from your phone can help create a healthy equilibrium in your life.
Here are some helpful tips on how to use applications that could help you protect your mental health:
- Use applications or devices that can help you regulate and minimize your Internet and smartphone usage. On your smartphone, Android and IOS offer Offtime and Screen Time tools to check how much time is spent on different applications. They are quite helpful in assessing the situation before tackling the problem! You can also customise how you would like to disconnect, either by blocking access to certain applications or filtering incoming calls. You can also do more by blocking your phone for a given period of time using Flipd, an application that sends automatic messages to anyone trying to reach you. On your PC, Rescue Time is a program that records the time spent on different activities.
- Manually disable as many notifications as possible, e-mail alerts and set up time slots to view them. For instance, only during work, or in the morning when arriving at the office and in the afternoon just before leaving.
- Filter information, for example by subscribing to reliable information sources and using RSS aggregators such as Feedly or Tweetdeck (on Twitter). They allow you to classify and organize information on social networks.
- Avoid using any device with a screen before bedtime and at mealtimes.
These helpful solutions should offer relief when you are stressed, feeling oppressed or ill due to hyper-connectivity. However, this does not mean that an individual should be blamed for the negative impact of smartphones and the Internet on their mental health. It means that we as a society need to take action to limit this impact. There has been some progress in this direction, for example, with the El Khomri law (in French) in France that was adopted on 21 July 2016 granting the "right to disconnect" to employees while at work. The aim of this law is to enable employees to separate their professional lives from their personal lives, by allowing them to decide if they can be contacted by their employer outside working hours.
Health professionals must also be made aware of the issue of hyper-connectivity. The authors who conducted the study in 2019 on the links between smartphone addiction and depression are calling on the healthcare community to raise awareness among patients about the impact of smartphones on their psychological well-being.
- A testimony from someone who went a day without a smartphone (an experiment)
- An article that explains the how and why of smartphone addiction and gives tips on determining whether you're addicted
- Arte's Dopamine series, explaining why applications are so addictive using an educational approach
- How to Unchain Your Brain, a book that's all about thriving in a hyperconnected world
- The documentary Hyperconnectés : le cerveau en surcharge, (Hyperconnected : The Overburdened Brain, only available in French), which gives a voice to sociologists and neuroscientists on the matter