How The Digital Age Takes A Toll On Our Mental Wellbeing

Digital media. Woman recording her vlog.
Copyright: ammentorp

The young, rising generation called GenZ now lives in a world where socializing is digital. Our experience with of the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled  this way of electronic communication to grow. So then, welcome to the new normal, where we look at screens more than anything else. We also know there are consequences to this sudden change in how we interact with each other. We will focus primarily on  Generation Z but the findings  apply to us all.

From a business perspective into being part of the solution to improving mental health, we might ask ourselves the question, how can our brand be part of the solution? 

How The Generations Regard Their Mental Health

The American Psychological Association’s report on ‘Stress in America’ described how the five main generations viewed their mental health.  At the bottom of the table was the youngest, GenZ with only 45% of them reporting excellent or very good mental health. Then came in age order, Millennials (56%), GenX (51%), the Boomers (70%) and finally the older age adults (74%). Clearly the older you become the less concerned mental health is but physical issues come to the fore. 

Generation Z is the age group that was born between 1997  and into the early 2010s so they are the 18 to 25 years of age bracket. They make up 25.9 per cent of the USA population. At least 98% of them have a smartphone and 50% of them are connected online for at least 10 hours every day. They are the first generation to have fully grown up with all forms of digital communication especially social media and know the internet and all portable digital technology like it’s a third arm.

What is not so well documented  is they are reporting more mood disorders such as anxiety and depression than any other generation prior. They have set a trend here. The flip side is that 40% say they are addicted to their phones and 80% feel distressed when kept away from any of their personal electronic devices. So, they’ve all grown up with social media technology and their life revolves around their devices. They are thus also the first generation to experience real mental disturbance.

What is a positive though about their issues with social media is that Gen Z has broken down the shame regarding depression on a cultural level by using these platforms. They are more openminded and show less stigma now around depression and anxiety as well as other mental health issues.

Screen Time And The Abused Dopamine System

We spend at least 8½ hours looking at our screens every day. This may be for work, school and education as well as entertainment.  That’s far above the amount of time say years ago (Pall & Mehta, 2018). In 2014, the average screen times from adults was just 4 hours and that was thought long but then it more than doubled in 2021. It’s nearly a typical working day. For younger people like GenZ it can be up to 12 hours because there is also texting and checking social media constantly. 

I think endorphins are misunderstood.  Odd to say it but most generations especially Gen Z need to be wedded to their social media platforms for their own self-esteem and with that comes a rush of ‘happiness’ inducing brain chemicals such as endorphins which makes it all so palatable. One of those endorphins is dopamine and we need to understand how this chemical functions with social media use.  

High levels of social media use in the context of our abused dopamine system means we are caught up in a positive feedback loop of neural addiction where we use and abuse social media (Divya Pall & Gaurav Mehta, 2018).

Take the quote from Professor P. Perlis, who is Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School:

‘Constantly looking at images of people who appear to be happier than you, and more successful than you, who generally seem to have a better life than you, certainly doesn’t make most people feel better.’

We are constantly responding to emails, likes & dislikes and so on. We receive attention because of the responses as a result which gives us a dopamine hit of pleasure and pain. This dopamine response is an addictive response too and means we go back to social media to continue the addiction. Unlike drugs or alcohol it has led this generation to start becoming isolated from face-to-face social interaction. It is a never ending destructive cycle.

What is the True Cognitive Cost of Information Overload?

Using social media effectively means we are bombarded with texts, pinging phones, responding to emails, checking out webinars, meetings. Our brains are constantly being overloaded and we are distracted to the point where our brains are chattering. We have as Jennifer Shannon described it a ‘monkey mind’. This is a reference to a stage in our evolution as primates where we have an innate part of the brain that is designed to distinguish danger from desire and so keep us safe. Our brains are constantly figuring out all the information it receives in such a way that we can avoid harm to ourselves and to others.  Our monkey mind is trying to work out what is real, what is fact and pseudo-fact from gossip and innuendo and the implications of this. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to work out what to believe and we just can’t help it. The rise of social media vastly adds to all that information our brains are dealing with and so we are getting trapped in anxiety and worry (Shannon, 2017).

Sleep Quality Is Severely Impaired By Blue Light

The physical impact of using our screens means that we suffer more headaches, we have greater eye strain and impaired sleep quality. You might ask what has this to do with social media.

The brain relies on a chemical messenger called melatonin which regulates our circadian rhythm. The rhythm is what makes us sleep when its dark and when to get up when it’s light. When we see UV light which is closest in wavelength to blue light, early in the morning, our circadian rhythm switches to a point where we no longer produce melatonin and so we stop sleeping and start getting active. Our metabolism moves into the ‘I want to get going’ zone.  The converse occurs when we start producing the melatonin in the brain, so it induces sleep and that’s what happens at night.

Unfortunately, when we start viewing our cell phones and iPads especially at night, blue light is flooding our eyesight and it makes our brains seem like its time to get up. Melatonin production stops and we are woken up before we’ve had any proper sleep. What we’ve done is received the signal from the Sun to get up when it shouldn’t be the case. Sleep in this situation is critical to our fitness and well being.

Dr Andrew Hubermann (HubermanLab) praises sleep. He considers it the best nootropic, best for stress relief, for trauma release, an immune booster, great for hormone augmentation, the greatest emotional stabilizer and so on. Look out for his ‘Sleep Tools’ which is in Episode 2 of the Huberman Lab Podcast, including an HLP interview with a sleep expert called Matt Walker. Putting it adroitly, when we experience less quality sleep, it severely affects our ability to focus. 

The Anxiety Epidemic

we mentioned endorphins earlier. Our brain has a dopamine- endorphin chemical system which has now addicted us to social media. We also have our ‘monkey mind’ operating constantly in the background which struggling to distinguish what is the real danger and obviously what isn’t. Layered on top is the disruption to our sleep cycle because of excessive periods of exposure to blue light. No wonder then that we are more anxious than ever. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in the USA, 19% of the population is reporting this experience but there must be more under the radar.

Anxiety is really a form of perceptual stress. It is a series of issues which we generate for ourselves and in our mind. It covers a whole spectrum from having negative thoughts to panic attacks. To start with we say comments such as:-

  • I have too much work to do.
  • There’s no time to relax
  • I cant sleep
  • My brain won’t turn off

This then morphs into:

  • I’m afraid of failing
  • I need to hide
  • I feel out of control

It then turns into:

  • I can’t handle all of this.
  • This is a nightmare
  • I am going to die

We can see how perceptual anxiety produces stress-related crises in mental health. Our brains is just chattering to itself which is very unhelpful.

To stop the downward spiral into depression we start buying products and use services to mitigate for anxiety. For Gen Z, poor mental health is one of the top two health concerns.

The Market For Products To Deal With Improved Mental Wellbeing

All the generations are seeking some form of redress from anxiety. A report from the Nutrition Business Journal which looked at the percentage of respondents from different age groups considering what mental and physical issues were most important for their wellbeing came up with some startling figures.  Gen Z considers stress (53.4%) and mood (50.4%) which are mental issues to be bigger than physical ones such as general fitness or energy (41.4%), weight (36.8%) and obesity, and getting enough sleep (36.1%). 

The Millennials consider  mood most significant (50.8%) whilst stress (47.3%), weight (46.5%), energy (45.4%) and proper nutrients (36.2%) follow. The GenerationX demographic think that weight is most important (43.7%) with mood (40.3%), stress (39.4%), heart health (37.7%) and energy (36.8%) in declining order. Finally, the Boomers regards weigh also the most important 46.4%, then General health (45.9%), heart health (40.3%), Vision (36.3%) and finally joint health (35.7%). You can see that as the generations get older, the emphasis shifts from mental health and mood to more general physical aspects. It’s a point that was evident made earlier on in this article.

The marketplace for products and services that meet mental health needs has grown sharply especially as the COVID-19 pandemic developed.   Just look at supplements, foods and beverages, apps and devices  for tackling stress and anxiety. We have supplements such as ‘Anxiety Stress Relief’ and Serotonin – Brain Food, a beverage and powder brand called Recess, Muse™, Calms, headspace, CBD and betterhelp.

The brand called ‘Recess’ offers RTDs and powder formulations which are designed as dietary supplements to support your mood.   

In the USA, there has been a steady growth in sales of mood and mental health supplements. That must continue almost steadily into 2024.  In 2020 there was an obvious spike in products to meet mental health needs which has fallen back to pre-COVID 19 levels. There were some who thoroughly enjoyed lock down because it was quiet and took away the responsibilities of everyday life. It did overall increase our appreciation of mental health needs and that could be reflected in  the the last two year’s growth of 25%  up to 2022. The growth rate moving forward is projected to be a conservative rate of between 10 and 15%. The market though for products is around $1.4 billion and is growing by also by between 10 and 15% year on year (YOY). It’s probable that over the next 4 or 5 years the market will be lucrative with lots of growth in the next 3 to 5 years.

Selling to Stress, Anxiety and Depression

Selling products to directly or indirectly tackle stress or anxiety is tricky to say the least.  The major issue is not being able to make claims where foods and supplements address disease or mitigate for them. You cannot mention the fact that foods can overcome anxiety or depression for example. It is a restrictive  and costly demand on a health product that only the pharmaceutical and the psychiatry industry in particular are able to make any claims because of the extensive clinical research that is conducted on prescription medicines.

The FTC which is the regulatory body in the USA tackled a 95% increase in unsubstantiated anxiety claims made for food products in 2021 (source: ASA Waldstein FDA Warning Letter Roundup). No claims can be made in social media posts, blogs or other vehicles either so it’s quite serious. At the moment product manufacturers are allowed to say a food for combating stress and anxiety offers ‘mood support’ and ‘sleep support’. In many ways the consumers don’t want quick fixes and the regulatory bodies wont support them either. However, what consumers would most like to hear about products addressing their issues are the following statements :- 

  • calms nerves
  • eases anxiety
  • helps with racing mind
  • helps you fall asleep faster
  • reduces stress

What can we do about this issue? 

When it comes to tackling mental health issues in this social media age, it is clear there really are no quick fixes or ‘hacks’ as one commentator put it. We can improve mental health education for a start.  We can work on developing habits so they become part of the solution. 

The Wheatley Institute (Brigham Young University) also considers who else is to blame – parents and their social media activities. For social media to work anyway, young people need a smartphone and it’s their parents who provide that access so it has already started. The authors of a study from the institute state:

“We found that depression was higher in teens when their parents reported higher levels of personal social media use.”

“Specifically, about 10% of teens are depressed when their parent uses social media at a low level, compared to nearly 40% of teens being depressed at the highest levels of parent social media use — meaning that adolescents are nearly four times as likely to be depressed if their parents are high level social media users.”

Generally, no regulatory body wants to make claims where taking a supplement offers a single ingredient that is a magic cure for mental health. At the moment there is considerable research interest into rhodiola, ashwaghanda and GABA. Each one taken in isolation or in combination has different impacts on us and you can thus begin to appreciate the difficulties in making specific claims because it simply might not work – we are after all different! The other aspect to consider is that a product is competing against lifestyle choices. There are at least five ways to improve mental health through for example, mindfulness, reading and relaxing, eating healthily, exercising and meditating. So there are many habits that are part of the solution but not the overall cure.

We have no one single cure to relieving digital stress. What we do know, and it is often touted, is that if we want to be able to make a claim to improve mood etc. only extensive clinical research will provide anything like the answer let alone the understanding to relieve our stress in today’s digital age.   

References

Erin O’Donnell (2022) Social Media Use and Adult Depression. Harvard Magazine. March-April 2022 Accessed 14th June 2022 (Article)

Divya Pali & Gaurav Mehta (2018) Dopamine, The Cause of Digital Addiction? LinkedIn Accessed 14th June 2022

Jennifer Shannon (2017) “Dont Feed The Monkey Mind: How to Stop the Cycle of Anxiety, fear and Worry”  Publisher: New Harbinger. ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1626255067; ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1626255067

Nutrition Business Journal Changing Consumer Survey. Conducted Q2, 2021; Condition Specific Report ($mil, consumer sales)

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