As the internet grows and our dependance or reliance on a digital lifestyle increases, it’s all too easy to forget about the harsh negatives that can arise in our technological universe. It doesn’t come with a warning sticker, but as young people grow up with the internet and constant connection in their lives, depression and serious mental problems are an unspoken side effect.
It makes sense, too. Humans are social creatures, but we have our limits. We become addicted to the feeling of getting to know new people without taking a second to think about the harm involved in trying to maintain a personality profile with hundreds — if not thousands — of individuals constantly watching our every move.
Depression is like an avalanche. It starts off with a jab about your hair here, or a joke about weight there but once it starts rolling the devastation it can cause is truly disastrous. Like a landslide, we don’t always stop to think how our interactions with digital people can affect them in the longterm. The need for a proper internet etiquette has never been so important.
Of course, the internet isn’t a horrible place. I personally started using the internet when I (and the internet) was relatively young. I have seen its potential as a communication medium, its potential as a life enhancing tool and its potential to change the world for the better.
Unfortunately, I have also seen the dark side of the internet. The side that becomes addictive and harmful. It’s so easy to create a perfect version of yourself that you maintain with everyone you come across online so much so that one day you look in a real-life mirror and are appalled by what you see.
This wake up call can affect people in different ways. Some may try to turn themselves into what they’ve created online, others may use it as a reality check and begin to see the errors of their ways. In most cases, it’s not a fantastic thing to go through.
"Our overactive brains also struggle with online bullying."
When we combine this hurtful lifestyle online with our offline counterparts, the perfect storm brews and its easy to understand why people — especially young people who are struggling to find themselves — have such a hard time coping.
This internet fuelled depression enhances the negative feelings we have offline. While our grandfathers became depressed thanks to family or other relationships failing, or some other life altering event, today we have the constant threat of feeling bad every time we check our smartphones. Since depression is a disease, we tend to feed that disease with an unhealthy online lifestyle.
I believe this is because everything we do on the internet takes places in our heads. Writing this now, I am not verbally expressing the words — I’m merely typing whatever comes out of my brain. At the same time, I have a conversation going on Facebook while listening to some music on iTunes. I’m also thinking about certain upsetting events going on in “real life”, while trying to formulate a constructive plan for lunch. I find myself going through a range of emotions; inspiration and concern for what I’m writing, sadness about those events, happiness because of a joke someone made on Facebook and a sense of contentment from my music. Also, hunger.
All these emotions and feelings exist in my brain simultaneously within a very short timeframe. I’m left wondering how our brains can even process these properly.
Perhaps they can’t. Maybe that’s why so many of us can actually feel quite empty and anxious unless we have the internet nearby. Perhaps that’s why so many young people are doing things like self harming; to fill a subconscious need to remind themselves they’re actually alive and that feeling something is better than nothing, or something bad.
So what’s the solution? The internet is only going to become bigger and, in this sense, more dangerous. After all, we haven’t even started talking about the harms of online bullying which is becoming more and more prevalent online perhaps due to the fact that we are all feeling lost and desensitised by the digital world that we try to rally any type of human response, purely for the sake of it.
Our overactive brains also struggle with online bullying. A small comment I make to you might send you into a month long spiral of depression, even if I was merely making an ill-thought joke. This may be because our brains are trained to communicate with voice and the more we talk with our keyboards, the less we understand about conversations and communication.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel"
I believe that the solution to this internet problem goes beyond the proverbial off switch. We need the internet, we just need a better internet. One that works more as a lifestyle enhancement rather than a means to communicate.
Many talk of “the internet of things” and one concept of this is that every device — a chair, a TV, a fridge, a clothesline — is connected to each other. We might see an commercial on TV for a new soft drink, merely say “buy that”, and our fridge is told to add it to our shopping list, which is transferred to a basket in the supermarket. In this scenario, we’ve been able to do something social with the internet (go shopping, for example, or talk about new products to buy) without actually relying on the internet to be the social connection.
We can still be humans while enjoying the internet. Already there are services out there that show how. Skype and YouTube come to mind: these applications constantly remind us there are people involved in our online communication. Real people. Sure, there’s still online bullying thanks to the anonymous and mind-driven comments section however I believe video communication has the ability to bring out the best in people online.
And that’s where the future needs to lie if we are to be a society of free thinkers with less mental illnesses such as depression. We need to use the internet to connect with real people, not with text and font on a screen. We need to be able to use our voices to speak, not our fingers.
Until this utopian world exists, I think it’s important to have a conversation about the internet’s effects on our mental health. If we are going to use our brains more and more in our daily lives, we must consider the negative side effects that arise with that lifestyle.
Seat belts were designed to protect our bodies while driving cars. Sun block was developed when we realised that going outside could be dangerous. Hell, someone even managed to invent glass safety stickers because people kept walking into windows at retailers that use large glass windows, such as Apple. Perhaps we need to develop something to protect our brains from the dangers of being constantly connected with the entire world.
"The need for a proper internet etiquette has never been so important"
For now, I urge you to have a proper conversation with someone that makes you happy on a regular basis. Even if you aren’t feeling depressed, or down. If you find yourself using the internet more and more, or if you realise one day that you’d rather text someone than call them, push yourself to have a verbal conversation. Or fire up a video calling application like Skype. Talk about things that you’d only ever write about. Feel slightly uncomfortable and learn what it means to trust someone again. Connect with a human as a human. It’ll go a long way to keeping you happy and positive in the long term.
HeadSpace is a great place for young people to have a chat with someone if they’re feeling depressed or down in general. Remember you are not alone and as more and more people get sucked into the digital world, there are only more and more people who are feeling like you. The goal should be to connect and share with these people in a real way, and to not keep things bottled up or only discussed in a Facebook chat window.
There’s light at the end of the tunnel, the online community just needs to work together to solve this problem before it gets out of control.