The Internet Generation & Mental Health

The Internet Generation & Mental HealthA look at what expert: Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer, has to say on this growing topic.

“My student Julie and I recently conducted a study on the mental health outcomes associated with being separated from family during the college years (such as by going to college out of state, which is, of course, very common). The findings were complex - and I won’t bore you with nuances here. But I will provide you with one headline that struck me: In our sample of over 200 college students, 59% reported having been diagnosed at some point with some psychological disorder. Note: This is not 59% reporting that they sometimes feel anxious or depressed. This question very explicitly asked if they had been diagnosed with a disorder.

Think about that.

I work in a university setting and the core of my work is to help young people develop during their time under our mentorship. Their success is our success - I truly believe that - and I pay attention to my students. It is without question that there have been increases in all kinds of psychological disorders among our students as a function of time. More and more students each year report having issues of anxiety or depression (along with other problems). Our counseling center on campus, like such centers around the nation, is absolutely saturated all the time.

Is 59% a representative figure?

Maybe. In an article on this topic also published on the Psychology Today website, Gregg Henriques (2014) presents some statistics, showing that about ¼ to ⅓ of college students meet the criteria for diagnosis for either anxiety or depression. While this proportion is lower than the ⅗ proportion found in Julie and my study, for all I know, the rates have increased this much in this amount of time. From my position, it actually seems like that - the rates are skyrocketing.

iGen and Mental Health Problems

In a recent conversation I had with world-renowned behavioral scientist, Jonathan Haidt, he pointed out to me the work of Jean Twenge, whose forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us, explores the psychological effects of being a member of the internet generation in detail.

As with any technological advance, internet technology (including texting, emails, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) was designed to improve the human condition. And, of course, in many ways, it has. For instance, there is currently, for the most part, no need for anyone in the world to own an encyclopedia, a phone book, or a dictionary.

If you know my work well, then you know that I often apply an evolutionary lens to questions of behavior (see Geher, 2014). And in doing so, I often ask whether modern problems are, at least partly, a result of evolutionary mismatch - which exists when some feature of our modern environment does not match the ancestral conditions that typified worlds of our ancestors during the lion’s share of human evolution.

Think about iGen (also often referred to as Generation Z). These young people were born roughly between 1995-2005. Internet technologies have existed during their entire lives. They grew up with this stuff. They have cell phones and are, for the most part, completely and utterly addicted to them. They use such social media as Snapchat incessantly. Sure, they have the capacity to look up information, learn about all kinds of topics, and organize their lives in ways that young people before them never could. But, of course, there is no free lunch - and everything has costs.

Jonathan Haidt pointed out to me that the constant internet access that iGen kids have may well play a substantial role in the modern mental health crisis that is affecting young people in our world today.

Below are three ways that Smart Phones (and related technologies) may be contributing to the mental health crisis of our time.

1. Deindividuated Communication Often is Mean-Spirited and Hurtful.

A standard finding in the social psychological literature is that people act in a relatively anti-social manner when their identities are covered up - when they are acting anonymously (see Zimbardo, 2007). This said, think about how deindividuated people are on the internet! There are all kinds of sites where people can provide anonymous feedback about business, doctors, professors, teachers, and more. Kids who are iGen are regularly interacting with people from all over the place remotely - so even when they are interacting with someone they know, that person is still behind a screen - quite literally. Under ancestral conditions, our ancestors only would have communicated with one another in face-to-face contexts - devoid of deindividuation. In short, it’s much easier for kids to be mean to one another than it ever has been before in human history - thanks to the internet. And hurtful social outcomes can, without question, have substantive consequences regarding mental health.

2. Cell Phones are Truly Addicting.

Just about everything that humans evolved to want can be found in unprecedented frequencies via our cell phones. Social interaction, social approval, sex, excitement, relationships - you name it. It’s no wonder that a recent CNN poll found that 50% of teens are addicted to their cell phones. Such addictions are known to affect sleep, social interactions, and all kinds of other foundational aspects of daily life. Further, it’s important to note that an addiction is an addiction. Research on the nature of addiction has shown that the brain circuits associated with addiction of any kind are pretty much the same, regardless of the content of the addiction (see Montgomery, 2010). Cell phone addiction is not that different from addiction to anything else - and it is wreaking havoc on our kids’ mental lives.

3. Internet Technologies Take Kids Away from the Out of Doors

Our ancestors evolved to be outside much of the time - plain and simple. Research on various aspects of human psychology show that we have a natural love for the various kinds of outdoor environments (see Orians & Heerwagen, 1992) and that humans can be conceptualized as having evolved with “biophilia” or a love of the living world (see Wilson, 1984). It’s important for us to get out into nature - ancestral hominids were surrounded by nature each and every day of their lives.

Without question, internet technologies take kids away from the out of doors. Ever try to take your teenagers on a hike in the mountains these days? Sometimes it’d be easier to take them to the orthodontist! And this is too bad, because getting out into nature has all kinds of positive outcomes for people.

Bottom Line

The world is something of a mess right now - so it’s hard to say what the most pressing issues are of our time. For my money, I’d say that the mental health crisis of iGen has a strong case to be made for itself as a contender. Our young people are struggling. These are our kids. And, perhaps just as importantly, these are the leaders of the next generation. We ultimately need them to be as healthy, in all ways, as possible.

Addiction to internet technologies is rampant in their generation - and there are all kinds of adverse unintended consequences that are likely to have long-term societal and personal effects on a massive scale. It is time that we take systematic measures to address issues associated with internet technology use in our youth. We need to do this for our kids - and we need to do this for our shared future.”

For more on this topic check out this author below:

Glenn Geher, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
In Print: Evolutionary Psychology 101 (Psych 101)/ Online: Dr. Glenn Geher's website at SUNY New Paltz

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