Digital anxiety

The new malady of the digital age

David Kennedy
Director of Eurescom

While we know it is unproductive to spend long periods on-line, we can now observe the new stress, digital anxiety, which can appear when we’re disconnected. Digital anxiety is usually arising out of our own inability to manage our connected lives. Actually digital anxiety can have many forms, and the different forms can also combine in many ways to have quite a negative impact on our lives. I do not want to give the impression that everything about the digital era is negative but, as with most things in life, overdoing it can be harmful to us.

What is digital anxiety?

There are some obvious digital crisis situations that most people can identify with: who has not felt the moment of panic, when you cannot locate your phone while you are travelling? Suddenly your plane ticket, your hotel booking and even your ability to contact anyone are at risk. This stress can also happen on a smaller scale, when your phone tells you that you have only 5{b28ae05319d94bff0b4d65c5a9f4524dd588360f05c61ef440e1608e0a1c4144} battery left, and you have no means to charge it.

Probably the biggest impact the connected world has on us is the way we have become interrupt-driven. We react to messages, emails and calls, as if they are the most important thing in our lives at that moment. If we are honest, 99{b28ae05319d94bff0b4d65c5a9f4524dd588360f05c61ef440e1608e0a1c4144} of them do not need an immediate answer, but we feel compelled to react immediately – even in the evening when we should be sleeping.

This is part of what is called the “fear of missing out” – we stay connected, because we don’t want to be the one who does not know what is happening in our social group. The good aspects of connectivity, like being able to contact the family anytime, should not be overlooked, but we have achieved a good balance.

A particular evil in the digital era is the ability of social media to prey on our insecurities by making us always aware of social comparisons. We post pictures of our holidays, and even our breakfasts, not really knowing if we are doing it to share our experience with our friends, or just to make them jealous. And we are definitely at risk of spending too much time recording our experiences, at the expense of enjoying them in the moment.

The ultimate level of this is where some deem themselves to be “social influencers” on the basis that so many people are looking at their posts that other people should pay them to promote goods or services just because they are popular. We should avoid adopting these populists as role models as they add no value – better form your own opinions. It depresses me that the current generation of populist politicians have learned to trigger such emotional responses via social media without providing any substance or value. This is something we must learn to overcome.

The other aspect of the connected digital era that needs management is the work-life balance. It is easy today to keep answering emails in the evening and not give yourself the few hours to relax from the stresses of work. Some people maintain that it is easier to answer the mails in the evening without interruption, but that brings us back to the starting point that we are allowing ourselves to be interrupt-driven.

Anxiety in other aspects of life

Anxiety in itself is a natural response where the body, when faced with a threat, releases a rush of adrenalin into your system, which uses these anxious reactions to launch the “fight-or-flight” response. This is hard-wired in us from prehistoric times, when we needed to react to the risk of attack by wild animals. It was not just a healthy response, it was necessary to stay alive.

Today these responses can become a problem when we feel under continuous range anxiety to complete work tasks for a specific deadline, solve family or money problems, or any issue that causes tension and demands your attention to the point where the adrenalin kicks in but you don’t actually need to fight or flee.

Managing our digital lives

As we strive for greater connectivity capacity and “always-on” services, we need to ensure that the good aspects are enhanced and the less helpful ones are controlled. We need to set our devices so that, for example, social media posts and messages do not give us a notification for every message. Then we can choose the time and energy to invest in seeing our messages when it suits us. Time management is critical in all things, just as you set time to exercise, have dinner, etc., you can set a time for reading emails and switch them off for a few hours when you have something important to do.

Having said that, my technical support people have just told me that they need to disconnect me from the mail server for about 6 hours to update the mail server – I am already beginning to feel insecure about such a long disconnection, and it has not even happened yet. Maybe I need to investigate my own relationship with the digital connected world.