Check yourself before you tech yourself

Digital tech is having a profound impact on our habits, rewiring our brains, building addiction and disconnecting us from the natural world. While we become increasingly dependent on our smartphones, we are reaching out for direct human-to-human contact less and less.

In a frighteningly short space of time, humans have gone from being part of the tribe to being a series of data points at the end of an algorithm. Unfortunately, this new setup isn’t serving us well. While Siri, Alexa and the nameless Google A.I. lady want to know absolutely everything about us, they don’t seem to be true friends. Rather than nurture and care for us the way the tribe did, our new digital companions exploit our fears, provoke our anger and monetise our attention.

Tech is rapidly changing our habits, rewiring our brains and building addiction to something far removed from our natural way of being. We have become deeply dependent on our smartphones and feel a regular compulsion to reach out for them – on average we now do it 56 times a day. We are, however, reaching out for direct human-to-human contact less and less.

Therein lies a basic problem – phones are crap at hugs. They can’t instantly give us the same feelings of warmth, safety and connection that humans can provide. While it may seem incredibly retro, true connection is far more likely to come from a living, breathing human than it is from a 5G tower.

For humans, the most valuable resilience resource has always been other humans. It is a well-researched fact that social support enables us to live longer, be happier and maintain better mental health.

Last time you were actually ROFL it’s very likely that it was IRL with another human. According to research by psychology professor Robert Provine, laughter is 30 times more frequent in social situations than solitary ones.

Another benefit of going organic over digital is that humans are incredible emotion detectors. Huge parts of the human brain are dedicated to reading faces and the many micro-expressions that appear on them. We have evolved this way so that we can co-operate and support each other. It’s an integral part of our make-up and one of the key reasons our species has thrived.

For anyone who may doubt the benefits of humans over tech, the pandemic served as a very useful large-scale experiment. It tested exactly what happens when we isolate from other humans and rely increasingly on tech. The results weren’t great. During the pandemic, cases of major depressive and anxiety disorders increased by more than 25 per cent worldwide.

While the pandemic may have abated, some of the habits we have formed during this time persist. Unfortunately, many of us have developed a habit of using technology as a shield.

We shield ourselves from social awkwardness by texting rather than calling. We shield ourselves from concern by curating rosy online presences. We shield ourselves from small talk by using the automated checkout, despite knowing that we will endure a robot meltdown if there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area.

Technology has allowed us to live our lives without straying from the safety and predictability of our homes. We can now work, be entertained and have all our worldly needs delivered to our doors without the requirement to make any social effort (or put on pants).

There is however a cost to all this convenience. The skills that once came so naturally to us are now less practised. We may feel more anxious in social situations. We may feel more isolated and lonely. And when we are feeling down, we may not feel as comfortable reaching out to others.

To enjoy the huge mental health benefits of social support, we need to change our habits, make an effort, and place far more value on the human touch. Some simple ways to start are:

1.Move it offline
Take a tech timeout and meet IRL. If you have been working from home, schedule some time to catch up with colleagues. Instead of messaging, revive the lost art of dropping in for a cuppa. To multiply the mental health benefits, spend time with friends in nature or while exercising.

2.Find regular social outlets
By volunteering, joining a sporting team or other social group, you can set yourself up for a regular dose of human interaction. These regular organised activities can bring us a sense of belonging and purpose, broaden our social networks and make Tuesday night far less dull.

3.Talk to strangers
Recent research has revealed that even small, seemingly insignificant social interactions can have a positive impact on our mental health. We can all give ourselves a boost simply by taking a few seconds to chat with a shopkeeper, discuss the weather with a neighbour or ask a passing dogwalker for a pat of their pooch.

4.Watch your digital diet
Consider not only how much time you are spending online, but also what nourishment you are getting through your feed. Tech algorithms have created the perfect bogeyman for each of us. Designed to rile and provoke us, digital content can easily trigger our nervous system and send us down some very dark rabbit holes.

5.Know who you can really talk to

Simply being heard is one of the most healing experiences any of us can have. It’s important that all of us have people we can regularly reach out to for mindful support. The best support is open, compassionate and non-judgemental. Rather than being about problem solving, it’s about sharing human connection and showing support. You may have friends, family members or colleagues that you feel comfortable reaching out to. There are also a wide range of services available where you can connect with wonderful humans trained to provide mindful support.