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The Explosion of Anxiety

In the last few days I've seen two mothers hip-deep in the mediterranean sea, each with smartphone in hand, eyes glued to their tiny screens, each with a toddler tugging on their free hand, vying for their attention.

I've seen more people than I care to count walking out into traffic with eyes fixated on their little screens. I've seen people driving their cars, one hand on the wheel the other one with their smartphones in a tight grip. I've seen people riding their bicycles in the same manner.

I've seen hordes of women with smartphone necklaces, as if this pocket-sized amusement park (A.K.A powerful wellbeing-destroyer) was a vital organ. Like a kidney or a spleen.

I've seen people scrolling during yoga class. I've seen yoga teachers wearing smartphone necklaces.

We've all seen couples dining out, necks craned, not to gaze into each others' eyes but to stare into their tiny screens. This is as common as dog shit on city streets, as bellyaches.

They all look like hungry ghosts. Like addicts. They are. All of them waiting for their next dopamine hit.

I feel the undeniable pull of my own device. I feel it in my bones. I feel that sometimes I have no choice but to give in. Click, scroll, whatever I do. And I know it costs me. I know the price is too high. It affects my mood badly. It destroys my concentration. My cognitive abilities. It makes me want to buy stuff. It makes me competitive.

I'm truly afraid.

These devices, and especially the social media and messaging apps they run, are designed with casino technology, designed to exploit the vulnerabilities of the human brain. Made by those who want to make profits at all costs. As ruthless as the big Pharma selling the legal heroin that's fuelled the opioid crisis in the United States.

We were hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. Way longer than we've had massmedia, TV and now our tiny screens with all the associated blips, notifications and advertisements.

We are wired to need connection, to need other humans. To need smiles, hugs and attention. We need approval and confirmation.

The likes and texts are a very poor substitute for hugs, for a face that mirrors your own expression. This is how we regulate our nervous system. How we cure our loneliness. In person. Or, working through a lesser degree but still working, hearing the voice of a friend through a crackling phone line, or seeing them waving with a slightly choppy delay via Skype of FaceTime.

A text or a social media post, no matter how many emoticon hearts, thumbs up and unicorns we get back won't make us feel less lonely, won't help regulate our nervous system.

And, because of the slot machine design of these systems, the rewards are very unpredictable. We post something, or send a text, and we don't know if we're going to get a response, and if it's going to be positive or negative.

Developmental psychology has shown that one of the surefire ways to fuck up a kid is to give them only very sporadic and unpredictable attention. I don't want to think about how fucked the kids growing up now will be, when their parents are too caught up with their tiny screens to give their children the attention they crave and need.

It also seems, that these frequent dopamine hits makes us less able to enjoy things that we otherwise would have enjoyed. Like the thick green of a park in summer. Like the wind in our hair. The mating twitter of blackbirds. The taste of coffee.

Just like cocaine addicts get depressed when they don't get their drug of choice, we get depressed when we don't get the dopamine hits of likes and hearts or just a new image appearing when we scroll on our tiny screens. Or a notification.

We know that the true reason behind all of this is driven by profit. Facebook and co wants us to spend as much time as possible online, so they can collect as much data as possible to sell to those who want to sell us shit that we don't need, and in this feeds the consumerism that is destroying the only planet we have at our disposal.

A few days ago, DN (the biggest daily newspaper in Sweden), ran a story about an eight grade class doing an experiment to see how many notifications they really get. There were 21 pupils. In 30 minutes this class of fourteen and fifteen-year olds received over 2000 notifications in total. From YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp and whatever other apps kids are using these days.

Is it just me feeling that this is absolutely insane? How will they be able to concentrate? What is this doing to their brains?

It's hard to stay positive. When you see people sitting on beautiful paradise beaches and instead of taking in the magnitude of the sea, the lush vibrant green of the fat palm trees, the endearing spectacle of life, people walking back and forth, smiles, frowns, laughter, barking dogs, kids peeing their diapers, they are absorbed by their screens.

It's hard to stay positive when study after study is showing that social media is making people feel bad. And the more time they spend there, the worse they feel.

Burnout depression is through the roof. Suicide on the rise. Opioid addiction ravaging whole towns. ADHD diagnosis is commonplace. Depression rates are sky high. Generation Z has anxiety levels matching those of psych ward patients in the 1980's.

We are the loneliest people who have ever lived. Despite all the ways we have to communicate, despite the instant access to knowledge, amusement and connectivity that so many of us carry around in our pockets, and now, some of us, around our necks. Or, is it largely because of them?

I tend to think so.

How come we are so stressed, feel like we have so little time, when we can book our travels, pay our bills, send money, download information so fast and easy?

We need to put our phones down. We need to help each other to do so. I know there's hardly anything worse than being told what to do. I still feel like I do people a service when I don't allow smartphones in the yoga shala, or the use of them at retreats. I think all of us need more digital detox in our lives. More places where there's no internet.

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