To navigate mental health challenges in the context of the digital age, we first need to establish two things: mental health challenges and the digital age itself. In this age, mental health challenges encompass a multitude of issues.
However, for the scope of this blog, let’s focus on the most prevalent ones: stress, anxiety, and depression. Similarly, the digital age offers a plethora of offerings, but our smartphones remain the strongest among them. Used by people of all ages, smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives.
Here’s an interesting fact: the average Indian spends approximately 4.9 hours on their smartphone, making India the 8th highest among countries with the highest smartphone usage.
It’s not the smartphone itself that leads to mental health challenges such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Rather, it’s a particular aspect associated with it that has become ingrained in our daily routines. Any guesses? It’s nothing other than mindless scrolling on social media. The term itself, “mindless scrolling,” implies that we engage without having our minds fully present, yet we have become slaves to this behaviour. Now, the problems associated with mindless scrolling are twofold. Firstly, it wastes our time, making us less productive and leading to procrastination. This vicious cycle can also contribute to mental health problems. However, there is something even more concerning about mindless scrolling. It involves the release of the feel-good hormone, dopamine. And who doesn’t want to feel good, right?
To put it simply, dopamine is secreted when we engage in stimulating activities like eating our favourite foods, listening to music, and yes, even scrolling on social media. The way dopamine works is that there is a baseline level in our bodies. When something stimulating happens, more dopamine is released, and we experience a sense of pleasure. However, this increased release of dopamine elevates our baseline levels, requiring us to engage in more stimulating activities to achieve the same level of satisfaction.
For instance, imagine you’re scrolling through Instagram reels and come across one that is highly stimulating, eliciting a strong positive response. This increases your baseline dopamine levels. Now, when you encounter another reel that is less stimulating, you may not feel as pleased. However, if you had seen that second reel before or on another day, you would have found it much more enjoyable, as your baseline dopamine levels wouldn’t have been elevated by the first reel.
Now, since not everything we see while scrolling is stimulating, we continue scrolling to obtain that next dopamine hit. The subsequent hits of dopamine keep us hooked on social media, prompting us to frequently check our social media throughout the day. When we examine this scenario from a different perspective, the urge to check social media becomes an obsession, and the compulsion to pick up our phones and do so becomes an obsession-compulsion disorder (OCD) that affects us all. In fact, unlike other OCDs, such as keeping things in order or cleanliness, scrolling on social media does not provide anxiety relief. On the contrary, we often feel more anxious and insecure when comparing ourselves to others on social media. Scrolling has become so addictive that if we try to stop, our bodies respond similarly to other addictions, releasing cortisol and causing stress. This stress response leads to anxiety, and prolonged anxiety can ultimately result in depression. Therefore, it is evident that these issues are interconnected and should be taken seriously.
So, how do we navigate this situation? To put it simply, we need to reduce our usage. While it may sound extreme and may not be possible for everyone to completely stop, we can at least minimize it. Try not to use your phone for the first hour after waking up and the last hour before going to bed. Engage in activities that require effort to achieve that dopamine hit, such as exercising, reading non-fiction books, and dedicating time to your hobbies. Lastly, in this fast-paced world, one crucial thing we must learn to prioritize for the sake of our mental health is to “Embrace boredom”.
(The author is from Symbiosis Institute of International Business, Pune )