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The Paradox of Technology & Stress

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

One of the key challenges for everyone is the continual interaction with technology and the need to understand how (and why) to manage their emotions and keeping them in check as pace of change accelerates and overwhelms our cognitive capabilities. While we still don’t understand how emotions and behaviors operate within the inner workings of the mind, there is some emerging data clarifying the impacts of continual interaction with technology. Teens are constantly on their phones using social media, and some consequences are manifesting themselves in behavior, psychological problems, and performance of students in class (O'Reilly, Dogra, Whiteman 2016). The issues related to technology induced stress can have significant effects mentally and physically.

Most of the research around the mind has been centered around cognition, since that is where the market opportunities lie with respect to artificial intelligence (AI). There is far more data and understanding about human cognition, yet most of the technology being deployed within the user experience (much of it built using game theory) is being used to manipulate our emotions in order to influence our behaviors. The obvious forms of game theory are with computer games, which run on any platform and which provide an immersive experience (try pulling a teenager away from a video game). The less obvious forms are in every day interactions with social media, websites, and applications running on mobile devices. These are more subtle, but they are very powerful for guiding (manipulating) human behavior.

Most of the manipulations are directed towards consumption (economic behavior), but unfortunately there are other motivations (many of which we are seeing played out in social media that are used to impact the way we vote, our perceptions of men vs women, our fears about immigrants, etc.). We need to become increasingly self aware of these manipulations by technologies (informational for now and biological in the future). We can't wait for government or industry to address these concerns, it's up to each of us to recognize the impacts and recalibrate our response (Anderson, Rainie 2018).

If we lose control of our emotions (through manipulation) and/or become cognitively overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data, information and analytical stimulus then we may experience various forms of stress. This stress can play out in various forms and impact our relationships, our behavior, and our overall happiness (impact increases with age per Stefan 2011). In some cases, these emotional manipulations and stress can lead to physical impacts (to ourselves or others if acted upon). We need to find ways to apply positive reinforcement to maintain control and ensure we preserve our emotional stability, which includes happiness.

So, how do we balance our emotions and contain the ongoing influence of technology induced stress ? There are a mix of mental and physical exercises and techniques that we can learn to help manage the cognitive overload. One approach involves learning how to

change the way we capture and catalogue information (the way we receive and store data and information), which we may turn into knowledge by applying it as we encounter experiences (scenarios). As we hone these techniques, we can begin (slowly) to better manage and contextualize the geometric rise of information and determine whether we need to respond to it. Think about the mental exercise of quickly scanning and cataloguing your email as one way to develop and apply this skill.

Another approach for improving our emotional and cognitive stability is to develop the “mind muscles” used for concentration by focusing on a topic, subject or complex problem for an extended period. Increasingly, technology is promoting skills that reward (via game theory) multi-tasking and shortened attention spans. This inhibits our ability to focus our cognitive abilities so we can address complex problems. Reading books and writing have proven useful in the past for developing these skills. Doing homework (from school) without distractions is another way to develop focus. Over time, you will be able to develop the ability to block out all the noise and “quiet” the mind so you can think more deeply. This has the added benefit of reducing the amount of stimulus and reducing our overall stress levels.

One of our ongoing challenges will be to find ways to maintain focus within specific areas of context since context switching, typically encouraged / exacerbated by the expanding presence of mainstream media (MSM) and plethora of social media channels. A fascinating (and disturbing) study was done in MSU exploring the impact of social media and technology on students, so the impacts are real and apparently expanding (Becker 2015). This onslaught of information is increasingly disruptive on both cognitive and emotional levels (Anderson, Rainie 2018).

Meditation and mindfulness have shown benefits to reversing the impacts of stress on the brain (Hölzel, Carmodyc , Vangela, Congletona, Yerramsettia, Garda, Lazara 2011). Exercise and yoga are additional techniques that can help reduce stress levels as they help train our mind (and body) to focus (deeply) and remove clutter. Sleep is another way to free our minds, but only if we are able to sleep deeply and for sufficient periods of time. There are ways of combating the impacts of technology, but we need to raise the awareness about the concerns and let people know that there are ways to restore balance.

It’s an interesting paradox that we rely upon technology to help us discover and explain the unknown, which helps us cope with uncertainty, but our same reliance on technology is now quickly overwhelming our ability to know anything with certainty because of the escalation of volume and complexity of cognitive and emotional stimulus.

Our ability to maintain control over our emotions and manage our stress levels may now depend on how well we can manage the influence technology has on lives.

Tams, Stefan (2011), "The Role of Age in Technology-induced Workplace Stress" (08 2011). All Dissertations. Paper 779

Scott Becker, Ph.D. (2015), "This is your brain online: The impact of technology on mental health", MSU Counseling Center, Presented to the MSU Pre-College Program Faculty and Staff Workshop, March 25, 2015

O'Reilly, M., Dogra, N., Whiteman, N. et al. (3 more authors) (2018) "Is social media bad for mental health and wellbeing? Exploring the perspectives of adolescents. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry", 23 (4). pp. 601-613. ISSN 1359-1045

Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie (2018), “The Future of WellBeing in a Tech-Saturated World”,Pew Research Center, April 17, 2018

Britta K. Hölzel*,a,b, James Carmodyc , Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Garda,b, and Sara W. Lazara (2011), "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density", Psychiatry Res. 2011 January 30; 191(1): 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.


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