With Covid-19 sweeping across the world, countries in various states of lock down, travel, both local and international severely disrupted, we desperately need something to cling to, something to entertain us and keep us connected. In the end we did not have to look any further than our mobile phones and the internet. Our salvation, offering entertainment, social links, ability to shop and work from home, its hard to imagine life without it.
Or is It?
Research shows anxiety is a growing disorder that has strong links to the rise in internet use.
The internet has become our great boredom reliever, but also our greatest time consumer. It keeps us in contact with friends all over the world, but interaction on line is different from face to face contact. It provides us with a wealth of variety, there’s always something new to look at. The constant stimulation of new things can be overwhelming for our minds leading to poor concentration.
The internet is tool we use to connect to people research, shopping, banking etc. As with all tools, used correctly it works well but misuse can impact on our digital wellness.
Should I be bothered?
Maybe, most of us have indulged in our fair share of internet use, be it Netflix, gaming or online shopping over the last few months. Excessive use of the internet is habit forming. Habits that give us pleasure can be addictive.
Those habits can lead to compulsions to continue engage in a pleasurable activity over and above friends, family, work and personal care. The internet is classed as a pleasurable activity as discussed here. Once it gets to this stage it can be classed as an addiction.
Addictions or compulsive habits increase the risk of anxiety. Many people are unaware of the 5 ways the internet can cause anxiety.
What is Anxiety
Anxiety disorders in Australia affect 1 in 4 people and is one of the most common group of mental health conditions. Research shows women are more likely to develop anxiety than men, but it is not clear why.
Serious cases of Anxiety can impact on your ability to concentrate, sleep and carry out ordinary tasks at work, home or school. People with anxiety disorders often feel they have to avoid stressful situations and in extreme cases avoid going out altogether. Physical symptoms are common and include shortness of breath, a pounding heart and trembling hands.
Anxiety disorders can be caused by many things. These include genetic factors, stress, family background, physical health issues or traumatic event. Yes, it is natural to feel anxious at some point, it’s there to keep us safe and help us avoid danger.
For most, anxiety normally goes away. Problems occur when it doesn’t go away and starts to impact on our everyday life. When this happens, you may have an anxiety disorder.
One of the main contributors to feeling anxious is uncertainty.
How does it impact on you?
Addictions have both physical and psychological characteristics.
The physical dependence occurs when an individual’s body develops a dependence on the habit or use of a substance. As they seek to stop or remove the dependence, they experience withdrawal symptoms e.g. such as drugs or alcohol.
Interestingly the drive for continued consumption is driven by a need to eliminate the anxiety felt by the removal of the addictive habit. The compulsive behaviour can create a psychological dependency and withdrawal symptoms such as depression, cravings, insomnia, and irritability.
If you feel anxious when parted from your phone of having to come off the internet or being away from it for too long you might want to take the test in the next section.
My internet use is not excessive.
That may be true for some, however, the internet is very much part of daily life now and that makes it hard to determine at what point internet use becomes excessive. We all have different thresholds of addictive use.
Google probably has a better idea of your internet use as internet companies know how we work and know how to produce content to keep us hooked. For example: a person who has a problem with online gambling and genuinely searches for help to stop this practice will very likely receive the complete opposite. Search engine algorithms will identify you with online gambling and as such will send more adverts and free offers to encourage you to keep gambling.
It’s a bit like sending an alcoholic vouchers for free beer every time they ask for help to sober up. In real life it just doesn’t happen but it’s common place on the internet and perfectly legal.
Perhaps the best way to find out is to answer the questions in the Internet Addiction Diagnostic Questionnaire (IADQ). The first screening measure developed for diagnosis (Young, 1998b) of internet addiction. The following questionnaire conceptualized the eight criteria for the disorder:
- Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?
- Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
- Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
- Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
- Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
- Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
- Have you lied to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
- Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?
How Does the Internet Cause Anxiety
The internet everywhere, and mobile phones have become an essential part of everyday life. Approximately 88% of the Australian population own a mobile phone with the younger population having the highest phone per person ratio at 96%.
Most having direct access to the internet for checking email, shopping online, banking, accessing news, downloading music, watching movies, sport, videos, social media, ordering food, GPS, google maps and the list goes on.
With such a wide range of uses we can start to understand how easily attached we can become to our little electronic source of pleasure. How many of us can leave the phone behind when we go out and not feel a twinge of “what this happens they cannot contact me!” The internet can create feelings of uncertainty, one of the main causes of anxiety.
There are 5 ways the internet can make you anxious.
We often reflect what we consume. Heavy consumption of the wrong material can have negative consequences for your mental health, which is why we discuss with you your ‘Digital Diet‘ on the digital wellness hub.
Disasters always catch the eye the bigger the media can make a small issue the better as it sells. Use of such words like catastrophic, chaotic, miracle, shocking, colossal, unbelievable are some of the power words used in media to create shock headlines and grab your attention.
Certain words can have an impact on our emotions leaving us a little emotional and apprehensive. Many headlines use the power of suggestion and what if scenarios to create concern about what may happen.
So we end up worrying about what may happen rather than what is happening leaving us feeling anxious for the future.
Consumption of social media can also generate anxiety as by nature these sites encourage social comparison which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. The need for likes can be addictive, whilst the disparity between real life and what people post is often far from reality. The pressure from social influencers to lead that perfect life, take that perfect diet or create the perfect body leaves many feeling inadequate.
This can lead to depression and anxiety not just for their followers but also the influencers.
Constant notifications break our concentration on average 85 times a day. It takes on about 23 minutes to return to your task after checking an email. Do this 10 times a day you lose 4 hours work, over a week that’s 20 hours lost productivity. You do the Math for the 85!
Somewhere you have to make that time up so its a bit like having a part time job as well as your main job so its not surprising many of us feel stressed at work. The constant disruption can lead to poor cognitive skills such as attention, memory and learning. This reduces our ability to make decision, being indecisive leaves, us feeling unsure and anxious.
I used to read on my phone before I went to sleep but found my sleep pattern was awful. After a few minutes I would lose concentration and stray to check my Phone for emails, then twitter, Facebook and so on.
Work emails and notification will follow you to bed, especially if you sleep next to your phone. We start with good intentions but end up looking at something else, be it the weather or the daily news, we are permanently distracted. The constant checking of the phone simply programs the mind to self-interrupt, which can continue into the night.
To further complicate the simple process of falling asleep research suggests that blue screen exposure can reduce melatonin production. This is important as it interrupts our circadian rhythm (i.e. sleep-waking cycles), making it harder for us to fall, and stay, asleep.
Unfortunately, poor sleep can leave us less resilient causing higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Work/life balance has eroded over the years thanks to the internet and email. Whilst they undoubtedly have their positive aspects, it does mean work can follow you home. Clients and work colleagues can now contact you out of office hours. The pressure to respond makes it difficult for us to ever truly disengage from out work. This can create anxious feelings as we feel the need to respond instantly to messages.
The more connected we become online the more disconnected we become in real life. Research indicates that constant connection to online communities with chat areas such as Facebook removes users from the real world. It can destroy personal and family relationships, leading to bouts of depression and feelings of social anxiety.
Communication online is very different from face to face. With online communication you have time to consider and perfect your answer. Whereas face to face you are required to answer immediately which can make some feel uncomfortable. The more time you spend online the more you lose your face to face skills, the more lonely you can feel. Quite often the internet is used as an escape route from our problems, but it can actually make them worse.
Covid-19 has seen a rise in connections via online conferencing software and chat sites which has been very effective in helping us communicate with loved one around the world, me included. Unfortunately, conversations end artificially with a click of a button. It’s not the same as the hug or handshake we are used to and this leaves us feeling a little empty as reality sets in, it’s not real.
Research shows the longer we spend online the weaker our face to face social skills become. It also reduces our ability to show empathy and resilience, leading to elevated stress and anxiety levels.
What Steps Can I Take to Prevent Internet Anxiety?
- Become more aware of your internet use and highlight any areas of excess (e.g. Spent longer online than expected)
- Take timeout to talk to your family or close friend. Keep that face to face communication going.
- Watch your digital diet, avoid content that makes you anxious.
- Exercise – internet overuse is often caused through boredom. Go for a walk take up an exercise, create a routine to break the internet habit. Even better leave your phone behind when you go for a walk
- Create some digital free time where you don’t interact with anything digital. Start small and work your way to a day. Some detox centres remove your phone for the weekend to help you relax.
- Take care of your diet. A healthy diet will help you feel better about yourself and improve your confidence. Buy a cookbook and try cooking some meals rather than ordering a takeaway via your phone.
- Take up mindfulness and take time out for yourself every day. Even 20 minutes of relaxation or doing something pleasurable for yourself can be restorative and decrease your overall anxiety level.
- Put the phone of computer down about hour before bed to help you relax read a paperback.
- Keep your phone out of the bedroom
- Create schedule of when you answer work emails during the day. If possible turn off notifications.
- At home set times when you are not available and turn off notifications to ensure you are not always online