What a time to be alive as the mighty Drake has said and it really is true. We live in a unique time where technology has advanced at such a stellar pace that it’s enabled humanity to do many wonderful feats.

We can’t deny that right now we have the most advanced methods of real time communication in existence, with the ability to stay connected to everyone and everything, wherever we are in the world — so why are so many of us feeling more disconnected from the world and others than ever?

It would seem the rise of social media has made it simpler to keep connected with current relations and easier to build new social communities too, but with the good has also come the bad. We see multiple reports of online bullying, information overload, fake news, never ending product placements and more that are impacting our mental health. It’s also very difficult for our primitive minds to live within smaller tribes for most of our existence and then be thrust into connection with anyone from any corner of our planet, being exposed to data that we would have never come into contact with 20 years ago.

Social media is only one element of a bigger theme of technology and digital innovation, that I feel is creating these larger waves of disconnection. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and think I’m a technology hater, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a total techie geek and have been since a young age, I believe the dawn of new technologies has brought great improvements to our world, yet it’s our relationship and application of these great innovations that should be a cause for concern.

What does the data and research tells us?

As with anything in my life when I’m searching for truth and understanding, I look at data to see what insights it can give me.

So firstly, let’s take a closer look at social media and it’s impact on society in recent years.

It’s reported that 2.46 billion people, that’s roughly 71% of those with access to the internet worldwide are using social media platforms according to research from 2017. This number is expected to jump to 2.77 billion by 2019.

Who’s the king of social platforms?

So which social media platform has the most users worldwide? As of July 2018, Facebook leads the way with nearly 2.2 billion active users and its sister company Instagram has just hit the 1 billion mark.

(You can find updated figures over at Statista if you’re reading this article in the future)

How long are we spending on these platforms?

It’s estimated from current research, that we’ll spend at least 5 years worth of our life accessing various social media accounts. In 2017, the average time a person spent on social media per a day was 135 minutes, this is a 23% increase from 2015 and a 7% increase compared to 2016.

What does this mean for our mental wellbeing and happiness?

If we take a look at the world happiness index over the last few years, it shows us that the Nordic regions dominate the top 5 of this list. In 2018 the world’s happiest regions looked like this:

  1. Finland
  2. Norway
  3. Denmark
  4. Iceland
  5. Switzerland

So it seems that the Nordic people are in a state of bliss, but are they all really like this? even the happiest on earth have their troubles and the Nordic regions are no different.

Recent research into data covering a 5 year span from 2012–2016 in these regions has uncovered a number of interesting insights. It was found that 12.3% of people across these regions had stated they were struggling or suffering.

If we look at at specific group, such as 16–24 year olds the results are even more interesting and especially since this is the first full generation who’ve gown up in the digital world, being constantly connected. The big insight here is that more than ever, mental health issues are on the rise and impacting several generations.

  • 18.3% of people from this group in Denmark said they suffer from poor mental health and this number rose in women from the same age group to 23.8%.
  • Norway has seen a 40% increase over the 5 year period of the younger generation seeking support for their mental health.
  • An overall rise across all Nordic regions in poor mental health has been recognised in young people both men and women.

I’m only looking at the Nordic regions in this example, yet I believe we see trends here in the younger generation that are replicated throughout the world with poor mental health and technology addiction on the rise — surely this is no coincidence?

One of the main reasons cited for unhappiness in these countries was loneliness, which I find fascinating as we have so many channels to communicate today, but it feels like many of us are lonelier than ever. We should remember that although these regions are seeing a rise in these issues, they are still amongst the happiest on earth and for good reason. An average of 87% of people across the Nordic regions reported themselves to be thriving, yet the rise in young people reporting to be struggling should be a cause for concern and a warning to take a closer look at the reasons behind this.

We are living in a time of information overload

Why is poor mental health and general suffering on the rise across our population?

I feel we have a couple of themes that are contributing to the difficulties that not just young people, but people from all generations are having to contend with:

Real time digital connection

The last 10 years is really the first time in history, where we have been truly connected to everyone and everything in the world 24/7. It used to be that communicating with your relatives in Australia was dealt with via a postcard or letter that would take several weeks to arrive, but now we shoot a Whatsapp message or jump on a video call — of course this is brilliant, yet not without it’s drawbacks.

This has also meant we can connect and be exposed to multiple streams of content from any corner of the earth in seconds, forcing the primitive operating system in our heads to digest mountains of information constantly.

While great in some cases, it can become unmanageable quickly and challenging for many to navigate, it also makes our world feel a little smaller too. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous and in this case the relationship with being plugged in to all things at all times, is one that needs to be redefined.

Social media — real people, fake life?

The obvious channel that is always picked on is social media and for a number of reasons. Personally, I’d say 80% of what you see on Instagram and Facebook is all fake, fabricated versions of a life people want you to believe they have and want you to sell you too, so you’ll buy their latest product which of course will 10x your life, allow you to travel the world and raise unicorns.

Yet social media is not the big bad and it’s not inherently evil, it’s just how we’ve decided to engage with it as an society. It’s a tool after all, which means our experiences with these platforms are in our control.

We don’t have to get lost down a black hole of Instagram for 5 hours, but unfortunately this happens to many of us and too often. There are great pro’s for these platforms such as allowing connectivity to friends and family across the world, enabling continuous learning with knowledge sharing on numerous subjects. Sadly though, the negatives seem to far out way the positives due to human behaviours and trying to make a quick buck in an unhealthy way for other people.

Information overload

Bundles of information are coming from everywhere, like streams of water smashing against your face when you’re under a waterfall, constant and difficult to navigate, sometimes becoming uncontrollable without any notice.

Smartphones have allowed us to break free from the chains of our desk bound devices, allowing us to access information at the swipe of a finger and kept up to date on anything we want. Whilst this is amazing for so many reasons, it’s also overwhelming at the same time, with so much to consume, how do we manage this flow in a healthy way? better yet, how do we know what’s real or fake?

Even access to the general gossip of life is easier than ever through services like WhatsApp and endless other messaging products. You can create multiple groups to share reams of information with anyone at anytime so everyone is in the know about everyone’s business, whether you wanted to know or not. The art of choice seems to be lost in some ways with so much content shoved in your face, it’s like drowning from your own consumption.

We don’t see each other anymore, like really see each other

That’s because we are too busy doing it through a screen and hiding behind text messages. There’s an obvious rise in global loneliness and the interesting insight is that social media can actually be a great tool to combat this, yet it seems to be making it worse. But why is this? I believe it’s because we’ve gone too far down the digital rabbit hole and focus so much on our online life that we never look up from our screens to focus on what’s in front of us — our real life.

Yes it’s easier than ever to connect with a friend through your phone, but is this a real connection. I mean, it’s easy to send a text or engage in an emotional conversation digitally without actually showing any emotion, but not so in person.

When was the last time you have met up with a friend in real life to have a 2 hour in person conversation over tea instead of a Whatsapp thread? do you notice the difference you feel when you actually see someone in physical form as opposed to just their latest profile picture popping up on your screen. We are social beings and you’d think social media would enable us even more, but it’s not, we are losing parts of us that make us so unique — our abilities to converse, interact and connect in groups.

Now more than ever, I see people struggle in normal day to day conversation and engaging with other people. I see this even more in the younger generation, those who truly are digital natives. It seems they’ve been so stuck in their technology and communicating through devices, that they’ve not learned how to have a real conversation with anyone but Alexa or Siri.

Finally, we don’t know how to manage our relationships with technology

I’m hoping you’ll be in agreement with me on this final point. The types of technological innovations we have experienced in the last 20 years have come fast and evolve so often, that we’ve yet to really define how we work with them, rather than these controlling us. As in any good relationship, you need a framework of trust and boundaries.

The big thing I don’t see from people is setting boundaries with their use of technology and understanding the physical and mental issues that can arise from such intense experiences. We only have to look at the increase in reports of phone addiction globally to see we have a problem, we even have rehabilitation centres now that specifically focus on social media and technology addiction due to the out of control relationships we have with these products — who would have thought these would be the problems we face 20 years ago when the Nokia 3310 first appeared?

What to take away from this

  • Social media isn’t bad, it has the power to do so much good if used in the right way.
  • Technology is not bad, again it’s how it’s applied and your relationship with it that will determine what experience you have.
  • There is always Yin and Yang — you cannot have good without bad, there always needs to be balance in anything in life.
  • Manage yourself, define your relationship with technology — discipline equals freedom.

What can you do

You have lots of opportunities to help yourself and others in creating healthier relationships to enable a culture of real connection, not one of disconnection through the realms of the digital world.

  • Focus more on your real life, not just your Instagram profile
  • Meetup with friends and family in the real world, not just through your phone screen
  • Define the relationship you’ve created with digital services/platforms and find a healthy way to manage it with set boundaries.

Ultimately, the digital world and all the cool innovations we have access to are amazing, we all love them, but it’s clear that we need to evaluate our relationships with these things to make sure we aren’t disconnected too. We have a big world out there, full of people to share stories with, experiences to be part of and much more.

Originally published at medium.com