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SF State study addresses digital addiction and depression

April 25, 2018

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SF State study addresses digital addiction and depression

In today’s digital age, this generation has become attached to the smartphone as though it’s an extra limb on our bodies. Recently, two SF State professors have published a study suggesting that the overuse of smartphones may result in digital addiction that can lead to depression.

Professor Erik Peper Ph.D. and Associate Professor Richard Harvey believe that these negative feelings are largely due to the smartphone’s instantly gratifying feedback to users — a substitution for face-to-face interaction where body language and other signs of communication can be interpreted.

“There is an epidemic of depression and loneliness in this generation,” Peper said. “And it’s only become quite troubling in the last five years.”

The study accuses media corporations and their tech engineers of hijacking the brain’s neurological processes, which is largely due to the tech industry’s desire to increase corporate profits. Peper and Harvey say that this is done by using push notifications, alerts and pings, which all trigger the neural pathways and make people addicted to their screens.

“I felt dismissed and slighted when in the middle of dinner my friend picked up his phone and quickly glanced at the notification,” one student surveyed in the study said. “The message appeared more important than me.”

The study said that a smartphone or computer screen’s auditory and visual notifications trigger our brains similar as to when something surprises us. These notifications can trigger the same fight-or-flight reaction we receive from our environment that momentarily freezes us in place and makes us orient toward the source of disruption.

“All these push notifications are a stimulus. They automatically capture your attention because we react the same way as if it was a tiger or a lion,” Peper said.

Students in the Ceasar Chavez Center using their phones. Photo by Jordi Molina/Golden Gate Xpress

The study calls this an “evolutionary trap,” where the digital systems in place hijack our core neurological processes that humans have built in order to respond to danger.

“My friends have been wanting me to reopen my social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, which I have since deleted, but I feel scared of it now,” said Aya Marmash, a SF State junior studying biology. “Before, when I was bored and had nothing to do my first instinct would be to go to Instagram, stalk people and look things up.”

Peper and Harvey observed SF State students in and out of the classroom. They found that students at all times before, during and after the class are continually texting, scrolling, clicking or looking down at their phones. They found little to no observations of students engaging with each other personally before or after the class.

A posture called “iNeck,” which Peper said is a phenomenon that has become all too common in today’s digital age, usually occurs when someone is standing or sitting with their backs upright but their necks in a slouched position to look down at their screens.

Additionally, digital addiction may cause even further negative health effects, both physically and mentally. Internet and smartphone addiction can lead to reduced social connections which may grow into a perceived sense of loneliness.

“There is some evidence that suggests that kids who play more than four hours of computer games a day have more difficulty recognizing emotional expressions of others,” Peper said.

At the end of the study, Peper and Harvey recommended multiple ways in which students can battle digital addiction. Simple fixes includes turning off push notifications and setting a standard time each day in which emails and texts are replied to.

Most importantly, Peper advises to spend some time each day abstaining from digital technology use, instead using that time for self-reflection and regeneration. He said that the brain is a muscle and that like any muscle, it requires rest after a heavy workout.

“Social media is a distraction that I don’t need,” Marmash said. “I enjoy talking to people face-to-face because it’s not the same online. It’s like people don’t know how to talk and approach one another anymore.”

One Comment
  1. Hilarie Cash, PhD

    We can confirm these findings. We have residential and transition programs for adults and teens addicted to screens. We've been around for almost 10 years, and we see the many ways in which addiction has robbed our clients of social confidence and skill. They all arrive depressed, anxious, and, generally, dysregulated.. After detoxing for several weeks and building skills in communication, emotion regulation, and life skills, our clients start being able to face real life with much more confidence.

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