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Stress and anxiety in the digital age: the dark side of technology

Updated Friday, 1 March 2019

What is it about new technology that is making many of us anxious and stressed? Dr Gini Harrison and Dr Mathijs Lucassen explore the top five stressors:

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Technology is everywhere, and mobile phones have become an essential part of everyday life. According to Ofcom’s 2017 figures, 94% of adults in the UK own a mobile phone; and over three-quarters of those are smartphones.  And while mobile phones were originally designed to facilitate phone calls on the go, Deloitte’s mobile consumer survey (2016) suggests a third of smartphone users don’t actually make traditional voice calls at all.  Instead, our phones are used as mobile computers, for checking email, shopping online, accessing news, downloading music and videos, engaging in social media, ordering food, looking at maps… the list goes on. We literally have the internet in our pocket at all times and can seemingly find out the answer to almost any question at the touch of a button.  But while these advancements in technological functionality and access are amazing; they come at a cost. 

There is evidence that we are becoming over-dependent, or even possibly addicted, to our phones. Think about how you feel when you realise you have forgotten your phone or left it behind somewhere.  It can be uncomfortable, can’t it? In fact, recent research has shown that some people experience significant stress and anxiety when they are separated from their phones and can even exhibit withdrawal-like symptoms, comparable to those usually seen when someone has an addiction.  Some research has even shown that high levels of engagement with smartphones and multimedia technology may be physically changing our brain structure and function. 

So, what is it about technology that is making many of us anxious and stressed? Here are what we think are the top 5 stressors:

1:Perpetual Distraction 

The persistent beeping, vibrating and flashing of notifications means that we are constantly distracted and driven to interrupt what we are doing to check our phones.  Indeed, a UK study found that smartphone users unlock their phones on average 85 times a day; and use them for about five hours each day.  This means we are unable to focus our attention and consolidate things properly into our memory, causing us to feel more and more ‘goldfish-like’, which can be quite distressing in itself.  This is backed up by research which is beginning to show correlations between high smartphone and internet use, and poor cognitive skills such as attention, memory and learning. 

2: Sleep Dysregulation

woman asleep with her smartphone

Many of us use our phone at bedtime.  You get into bed intending to go to sleep, but you just want to check your phone (just for ‘a second’) to find out something innocuous like tomorrow’s weather... and then an hour later, there you are watching a totally random video, trying to decide whether you hear a computerised voice saying the word ‘yanny’ or ‘laurel’.  Looking at our phones when we should be going to sleep has the double whammy effect of over-stimulating our brains, making it hard to wind down and switch off, and exposing us to blue light from the screen. Research suggests that blue screen exposure can reduce melatonin production, which interrupts our circadian rhythm (i.e. sleep-waking cycles), making it harder for us to fall, and stay, asleep. Unfortunately, poor sleep tends to mean poorer resilience and higher levels of anxiety and stress. 

3: Work/Life Balance

work life balance illustration

While in the past there was often a clear boundary between where work life ended, and home life began… this area is now very much grey.  Most of us have our work emails on our phones, making us constantly available and contactable.  This makes it very difficult for us to ever truly disengage from work and relax.

4: F.O.M.O


...Or Fear Of Missing Out is essentially a type of social anxiety that arises from the fear that you are missing out on something; whether it’s an event, a work or social opportunity, a communication, or a potential connection, or just something cool and ethereal that you might like to see or be part of.  So we want to be connected… ‘just in case’.  To test this, just ask your friends and family if they’ve ever considered coming off social media. Like us, they probably have… but the majority probably decide not to, because of FOMO.  Ironically, the more connected we are, the more likely we may be to experience FOMO, because it is often caused by the posts we see on social media sites like Facebook leading us to believe our friends and acquaintances are having exciting and/or interesting experiences in our absence.  To find out more about research exploring the relationship between problematic smartphone use, FOMO and mental wellbeing, click here.

5: Social Comparison


We can’t help but compare ourselves to others, and social comparison theory suggests that we use these types of comparisons to evaluate how we think and feel about ourselves.  Social Media, by its nature, actively encourages social comparison, as it is littered with information that can easily be used as metrics of apparent social success (e.g. friends, likes, shares, followers and so forth). These metrics are problematic in themselves, because if we don’t get enough likes to a comment or picture we have posted, or if someone has more likes or friends than us, it can make us feel inferior.  Furthermore, the disparity between real life and what people actually post on social media means that we tend to only see an extremely edited ‘highlight reel’ of other people’s lives. This effectively gives the false impression that others lead a more exciting/perfect/interesting life than our own, which, in reality has its fair share of ups, middles and downs for everyone… increasing the likelihood of negative social comparisons being made, which can have serious consequences on our wellbeing.

Find more out about how to avoid and/or manage digital stress in our related article. 


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This resource is part of the 'Wellbeing and Mental Health Collection' created by the Open University in Wales. You can learn more and find courses, articles and other activities on the collection's homepage.


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