Altered Realities

The biggest challenge facing emotional well-being today

A report released by Common Sense Media, which was covered by Fox News as well as The New York Times, found that 72 percent of teens feel the urge to immediately respond to their phone notifications, and 59 percent of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices. The numbers are steep and concerning, but the good news is — they are also a little exaggerated.

Pediatricians and tech experts agree that a real phone addiction really comes down to compulsive behavior. Does the kid get enough sleep? Exercise? Does he/she socialize face-to-face with peers? Is homework getting done? These are the questions one needs to ask. Addiction, by definition, arises only with the constant displacement of other things. It’s hard to make a case for addiction if the kid is getting everything else done. The schedule of any person can be broadly divided into productive and non-productive time. Phone usage, in recent years, has affected only the non-productive activities of an individual.

Still, true addictions to phones and devices do happen. However, addiction to phones is still being treated as the only negative consequence of phone usage. Addiction is one extreme of a spectrum which, according to the study, affects under 10% of teenage phone users. The more relevant consequence that needs to be addressed is that a more significant proportion of the adolescent users may be experiencing altered childhoods because of the technology available to them.

Rabindranath Tagore famously said ‘Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.’

But the quote has lost its applicability today, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Child Development, because Tagore assumed that learning processes will continuously evolve as the years go by. The investigation revealed that teens today are experiencing a slower path to embracing adult responsibilities than ever before. The researchers concluded that cell phone and tablet engagement was to blame. Because with social connection always just a few clicks away, teens today are less likely to leave their homes and seek that connection in the “real” world. Communication skills are an obvious casualty as a result. Teens today are slower and less efficient than ever before at interpreting body language, eye contact, gestures while showing less empathy.
Adolescents who spent more time on new media were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely. Washington Post published an article in November 2017, which stated that smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 — right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online also was linked to mental-health issues across two different datasets. They found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent only one hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide).
Experts have various theories to explain the correlation. One says that teen minds get addicted to the dopamine hits the brain releases on seeing new notifications.

Subsequently, it leads to higher risks of depressive thoughts in the absence of the same.
The most widely accepted theory is the ballooning of insecurities and craving for validation on social media. Most teens today blow up actual situations way out of proportion while disregarding the obvious interpretations of events. A recurrent example of this is ‘FOMO’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’ Social media and phones feed the insecurities of a person that leads to a person always assuming the worst possible perception of reality. Almost all teenage social media users today have experienced it first hand or have witnessed a friend falling prey to these altered perceptions.
Now, it is an unquestionable fact that smartphones are an integral part of a person’s life in today’s world. They have gone from being a rich man’s convenience to a necessity for carrying out the day-to-day activities of everyone. But we can still prevent a smartphone encroachment into our productive time. It is crucial for an individual to identify the fundamental purpose of his/her phone. It might be to coordinate professional activities, school work, and even to serve as the primary entertainment unit. However, it is more important to ensure that the usage does not extend much outside of that primary purpose. Tech giant Apple has already confirmed that it has consciously tried to make their operating system addictive, and has admitted to slowing down its older models and reducing their battery life through software updates. It is no secret that other companies have followed this doctrine and aim to convert most consumers into slaves for their products.

But, willpower is a sign of human intelligence, and while most of us know classmates who would probably never qualify as intelligent life, willpower is also innate. Altered realities are the biggest threat to the emotional well-being of young people today. Each generation comes with its own hurdles and the challenges that social media pose might be the defining problem of our generation. 36% of parents and 32% of teens say that there are daily arguments on the issue of the latter’s phone usage. These numbers are unprecedented in all previous studies into household arguments. The curbing of the problem isn’t easy either, because the first step for resolving it is an identification of the problem, and almost everyone is ignorant of the differences between phone addiction and the addiction to altered realities. It is a daunting task, and proper public education and research into altered realities are the need of the hour.

-Gautam Garg