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Dictionary.com defines the word ‘desensitize’ as “to make indifferent, unaware, or the like, in feeling.” I think this is a term that our society has become quite familiar with. As we are bombarded daily by all the things wrong in the world, it is quite easy to become desensitized to the news about the society we live in. With social media constantly reiterating the news over and over again, we are all in danger of becoming desensitized. The news and social media plays on our emotions and thoughts by using attention grabbing headlines to increase clicks for their articles. Everything is now in competition for the most valuable resource in the world: Our Attention. The digital age that we live in encourages us to consistently consume information without leaving much time to process any of it.
It is quite easy to become overwhelmed with the staggering amounts of information available to us at any given moment. I remember a time when there was an off-switch to the things around us. For example, when you watched a television show, there was no choice but to wait until the next week for the following episode because things such as DVRs and platforms like Netflix and Hulu did not exist. Now, we’ve been told that it is okay to sit for hours and watch constant images play in front of us. We don’t have to move because there is also food delivery, and now delivery options such as UberEats and of course delivery, to cater to our every needs. With the constant invention of things that are marketed to make our lives easier, we are also encouraged to do less activities and consume more. These inventions can, and do of course, offer things to make our lives easier. However, we are at a dangerous precipice. At what point do we consider the effects of this over-consumption of information on our mental health?
There seems to be limited research on the overconsumption of information and its impact on mental health which is ironic considering the age we currently live in. Everyone is at risk for information overload in this digital world. We are all receiving more information than we can keep up with. Yet, it seems there is limited research in what this is doing to us as a people and as a society. Bhasin provided some statistics on how information overload affects our productivity at work. Hemp reported how our struggles with trying to keep up with our inboxes are affecting our views of ourselves as workers; Hemp’s article also discusses how we seem to be watching our focus, attention, and intelligence deteriorate. We are being given way more information than we can process and as noted by Postman, there is a real difference between information and knowledge. Everyone is being affected by the unending amounts of information being churned out daily. The various daily platforms (TV, radio, videos, emails, podcasts, phones, tablets, console games, magazines, newspapers, Netflix, Hulu, social media, instant messaging, etc) that churn out information are far-reaching and ever-growing. Loder talked about the current work email overwhelm that many companies and employees are now facing. This can lead to us becoming completely desensitized when we feel that we are unable to keep up with the output. This, in turn, then begins to affect our mental health. As we begin to struggle with stress, self-esteem, self-worth, physical health issues, fatigue and exhaustion, memory issues, and attention problems, we move into unchartered territories as no one in human history has had to manage all these triggers and consequences that we are now faced with. We may feel that we have a handle on all of these demands on our times but our physical and mental health may say otherwise. The digital age has monopolized our attentions, our emotions, our physical health, our spiritual health, and our mental health, and probably other things that not have yet been realized. Neuroscience is only just beginning to understand the effects of the digital age on our brains. But it has proven that multitasking is basically an illusion and rationalization that we tell ourselves to enforce how productive we are. I mentioned earlier that we have lost our automatic off switches and this will affect us in the long run, as is already being proven. We are already losing some of our basic and intrinsic principles that reflect our connection to humanity. As noted in Levitin’s article, just take a look at some of the emails you received today or some of the news headlines on any given day, we are losing our compassion, our humanity, our common courtesies, boundaries, respect, and other things that keep us connected.
Mental Health Impact
One effect that the technological age has had on humans, especially in the developed countries, is desensitization. We have come to view keeping up daily with social media, emails, and texts – basically being attached to a screen at any given moment of any given day – as the norm. This is the new norm. For people who have made a conscious effort to stay somewhat unplugged, they are considered the abnormal ones in our current times. Being desensitized already lowers our threshold for constant digital input that over time, we may not even be aware of what this is doing to us, our brains, and our bodies.
Schwarz discussed the chemical changes that technology has on our brains. Information overload is very real and can have lasting effects. It most definitely has effects on our mental health. The amount of time we spending scrolling through constant flows of webpages of people with ‘glamorous lives’, ‘the perfect bodies’, ‘accessible and beautiful foods’, and all the other things that the surfing the internet provides is targeted right at the core of us and deeply affects our self-esteem, our self-worth, self-image. These images find homes in our thoughts, emotions, and our behaviors. We underestimate the assault that information overload has on our senses. When we scroll pages of content daily, they bury themselves in our psyches and connect with the fears that we are all already struggling with and amplifies them.
Technology, of course, has many benefits. This is simply a reminder that we have to erect appropriate boundaries to assist us with curbing this overload. We have to do this for ourselves as well as our clients. Continuous overload puts us at risks for mental and physical disorders and diseases as stress, anxiety, negative self-talk and self-image escalates. I hear clients and family members, myself included, complain about not having enough time to do the things that are needed, but the truth really is, we did not set appropriate boundaries and manage our time well enough to accomplish our goals in a given day. It is quite easy to go online to research a topic and find that 2 hours have gone and nothing of value was completed. Tartakovsky noted that Alvin Toffler coined the term information overload in the 1970s which is very much in effect in our current society, 40+ years later. This concept will most likely redefine itself as technology continues to expand.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.