Vices, Devices

When I conceptualized this website, I referred to it as a “blog on gaming and culture.” I’ve written a whole lot on the former and not much else. Today I’ll make an attempt to change that with a topic that I find to be extremely important and worthy of discussion — mental health. I’ll keep it simple, but try to just state my focus up front. I believe that constant electronic device and social media use can add substantially to the depression and anxiety that many of us face daily.

When I conceptualized this website, I referred to it as a “blog on gaming and culture.” I’ve written a whole lot on the former and not much else. Today I’ll make an attempt to change that with a topic that I find to be extremely important and worthy of discussion — mental health. I’ll keep it simple, but try to just state my focus up front. I believe that constant electronic device and social media use can add substantially to the depression and anxiety that many of us face daily.

(To provide an up-front content warning, this is an article about mental health focused on depression and anxiety.)

If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, please do not be afraid to seek help. Whether it’s a friend, family member, co-worker, therapist, or anyone in between, there is no shame in talking about these feelings. You are loved and you are valued. If you take anything away from this post at all, I would hope it to be that.

Depression and anxiety are “bad words.” That’s what we’ve been told for years. We’re supposed to cover them with terms that sound detached, sterile, vague. But the truth is that accepting these things as real and present is the first step to living with them and healing, even if healing takes different forms for many of us. I spent years of my life burying my own depression under the classic strings of “I’m fine” and otherwise blaming it on external factors or people in my life. Perhaps I was trying to pull myself out from under the tide of vulnerability that comes with accepting a personal affliction. We all have our coping mechanisms, though I can’t say that those were my proudest or most productive.

Undivided attention

To oversimplify my point, it was only recently that I made the connection between my levels of depression and the time I spend staring at my phone. Much of my “phone use,” whether it be social media, news browsing, forum lurking, or mobile gaming, is often punctuated by a sense of disappointment. Not always, but often. While I can’t quite pinpoint where it comes from, I think that as an “adult person” I find disappointment in myself when I feel I have “wasted my time” or “my time could have been better spent elsewhere.” Time is a commodity these days, after all, and if I’m not making the best of the time I have, what am I doing?

Engaging in various activities via an electronic device is a personal choice. No one is making me surf the internet or level grind in Granblue Fantasy for hours. These things are not inherently valueless, either, and there are indeed moments I feel fulfilled by them. It can be relaxing to spend a bit of time casually doing “nothing.” The other half of the time, though, I put my phone down and look around me. (I know how idealistic this all sounds, but bear with me.) I see books unread, games unplayed, movies unwatched. I see my dog, I see my cat. I see my wife. My mind is immediately overcome by a dozen ways I could have spent the past five minutes or hour in a more productive or meaningful way. And in that, I become depressed.

Spinning our wheels

I acknowledge this as depression for two reasons. One, because I feel a sense of defeat that I just can’t seem to shake. Two, because that sense of defeat drains me and keeps me from trying to actively engage something else. To “pick myself back up and try again.” I just fall right back to where I was for the sake of ease and it perpetuates the cycle. The more I do it, the worse it gets, and I am left with these pangs of regret, mourning minutes I’ll never get back. It’s frustrating, inherently privileged, sometimes silly, but real nonetheless.

I do believe a lot of my feelings are as simple as being frustrated when I see an hour fly by with nothing accomplished, but there is a social component that complicates these feelings in a noticeable way. It’s why I’m writing this piece, but also why I didn’t write this piece as soon as I wanted to. In short, I think my life significantly improves when I minimize my device usage, and yet this realization has almost made me fearful of reaching into social media again in a more “profound” way (if one can call it that). I don’t want to see myself fall right back into the ways that fed the negativity that plagued me for some time.

Keeping in touch

To go straight for the throat, I find a great bulk of my manifested symptoms to be rooted in my use of social media platforms. I’m not here to damn anyone’s endless Twitter scrolling or hundreds of Facebook friends or thousands of Instagram food pics, but I do want to point out some of the ways in which life has changed for all of us because of these things. The first layer of that change, in my opinion, comes in the shape of availability — constant, unending availability, and the expectation of such.

“Suchandsuch is online now!” “Anonymous was last seen 42 minutes ago!” Our communicative platforms really want to make sure we stay in touch with one another…to a fault. Yes, it is a magnificent thing being able to keep up with everyone from distant cousins to elementary school pals to a whole cornucopia of people I’ll probably never even meet, but the expectation that comes with that is the problem. It’s taxing! The assumption that everyone we know can respond to us with near immediacy has set us up in a way that isn’t just unfair and unreasonable — it’s unhealthy.

“Me time”

Part of friendship, part of human contact, part of all social interaction is the privilege of being able to escape from it when we need to. Personally, I’ve turned off all social media “push notifications” in order to help foster a less stressful personal environment, but even that sometimes takes the opposite effect. I’ll check a conversation string habitually to see where it has gone, I’ll randomly look to make sure I didn’t miss something important from someone close to me, I’ll embarrassingly check to see just how many people “liked” my most recent post. Things we’re all guilty of that aren’t without a peppering of anxiety. And don’t even get me started on “read receipts.” I don’t even need to delve into the intensely “over-memed” concept of “leaving you on read,” as if someone not providing an immediate response to your message is an act of aggression. As if not liking your buddy’s most recent Instagram selfie means you actually don’t like them as a person. See what I mean?

Tiresome talk

It’s those assumptions, those over-analyzations that we unwillingly engage in, that make communication in the digital age that much more difficult. We have all somehow managed to take something wonderful and turn it into a song and dance routine that breathes uncertainty in each verse, seeping poison through the perspiration of every movement. Sure, when it happens to fall into perfect rhythm and be just as fun and fantastic as it should be it’s an invaluable part of life. When it doesn’t work, however, it becomes work and it’s exhausting. I do not need the weight of the way my friends communicate with one another (and myself) on top of the weight of my own baseline anxiety. It’s not necessary, valuable, or productive. It’s dangerous. And we’re all playing along. I may be speaking for myself in this article, but the mechanics of the game don’t change based on the player.

All highs, all lows

While expectation of availability is a simple, common problem that can be seen in action with very little effort, the other level of expectation that comes with social media is a bit more esoteric. It’s easy to become disheartened by what feels like a pulverizing stream of bad news coming in from every angle. Be it politics, humanitarian concerns, or one of the dozens of terrible, entirely random headlines we see on a given day, it’s painful to watch the world around us move forward, constantly expecting the worst. This is only half of it, though, and when applied to the “everyday people” we encounter online, life starts to look like a mountain range. Our passive interpersonal relations become ruled by peaks and valleys, everyone’s best and worst, leaving out the mundaneity we can’t seem to escape ourselves.

It’s a simple concept that begs a simpler question — how do we cope? When everything is wonderful and everything is terrible and we can see it all on a 6-inch screen in immeasurable quantity, how do we cope? I spent months, maybe years, in varying levels of severity, contemplating why everyone was doing so much better than me. In contrast, my mind was occupied by this fire of frustration over every injustice occurring in the world — how could things get so bad? Were they always this bad? For everyone? For me? For the people I care about? For people I hardly know? It subconsciously trained me to become invested in both everything and nothing. And yes, I was depressed.

How green, really?

I spent hours engaging in arguments online in hopes of getting my point across. I would then go through most days filling the part of my life devoid of interaction with constant scrolling. I’d see those same old friends and acquaintances and wonder what their “secret to success” was. I just couldn’t figure it out. Everyone seemed so interesting. They all had so much going on! Then again, when you can’t see the dirt along the fence posts, you can only see how green the grass is on the other side.

That cliched “green grass” analogy is unreasonable for all parties involved, of course. We spend time thinking “wow, my life would be better if I had that” or “gee, if I could be like that person I’d be able to turn it all around.” I have spent far more time than I’d care to admit fantasizing about what my life would look like in the context of others’ — if I had their beauty or wealth or connections or respect. And then we see those very people who hold said “privileges” experience something difficult and it injects this rich, smoky bleakness into what was once a shimmering, fairy tale world so unlike our own. (Or so we believe.) Worse still, rather than using this as a “back to reality” moment in whatever hero worship or distant infatuation we were nurturing, it serves to reset the cycle and bring us way back down, skipping the baseline and plunging us into the same hopelessness we had hoped to escape in the first place.

Again, we don’t see the in-between. We don’t see the beige parts of anyone’s lives but our own. And why would we? We’ve been granted a world where we can pick and choose exactly what parts of our lives we’d like to present, so why promote the bulk of what we deal with? Really, this is no different than “traditional” communication, where we express excitement or anguish to one another as it occurs. Big events, ups and downs, we tell our friends and family. Give them a call, grab a coffee, you know the drill. The reason it becomes an issue in digital communication is really just based on an increase in frequency. It takes the meat and potatoes information we’ve come to know so well and then slathers it in a delicious, super-dramatic sauce that keeps us coming back for more regardless of the heartburn.

Overwhelmed, never whelmed

The problem isn’t even the information itself, really. No matter how tasty or traumatic. It’s the fact that we see it at every turn, every mile marker between ourselves and the people we somehow “know” on the other side of the world. We all do it. Even an attempt to share our mundaneities is attached to a certain level of grandiosity (this entire post being evidence of that), so it’s crucial that we remember our role in it all. Supplier and consumer.

Most of us give it out as readily as we take it in. Supplier and consumer. And there is no inherent “wrong” in putting ourselves out there the way we do. Again, though, is the matter of frequency. We are only affected by gulping it all down unceasingly, our goblet rapidly refilled by individuals who, at this point feel more like avatars than people, their lives characterized as caricatures, supplying us with all things beautiful and horrible. We love them and we hate them and it turns us all into these binary beings realized only in a 1-0 flux of “good” and “bad.”

More than the sum of our thoughts

And if I were to boil it all down to one thing, one overarching point from all of this, it’s that exact “binary” way in which we have dehumanized one another. We exist behind screens and as such have created an insurmountable emotional distance in which our personalities are replaced by everything we choose to express and nothing we don’t. I admit that I have mental compartments for people who exist outside of what I’d call my “emotional reach.” Bad people, good people, interesting people, stupid people, smart people, etc. Despite being aware of the fact that we are all deep, complex creatures, it has become too easy to catalog individuals based on their text output and most recent selfie.

This is not some “holier than thou” post asking you all to “not judge a book by its cover,” either. Some people are bad. Some people are stupid. Some people are absolutely wonderful. Most of these things can, in fact, be seen quite easily in the way they conduct themselves online. I’m also not saying to stop engaging one another critically based on issues or opinions and I’m certainly not advocating for letting everyday evils go unchecked. What I am asserting, however, is the importance of seeking the whole of one another and trying to remember that the people you interact with are, well, people. People with faults and fears, many of which we likely share.

Riding this train together

These aren’t new ideas and I am absolutely not the first person to state them. Hell, I’m sure others have expressed all of these points with a greater eloquence and far more merit. I’m no point of authority, I just find value in saying these things out loud in hopes of gaining a better personal understanding of them. And if you’re still on this train, I’d wager it’s because you find some common ground yourself.

Through conversations with friends and family (not to mention the simple observation of individuals interacting online, ironically enough), I find we all express similar feelings and concerns, though the way we all cope with them is different. I know people who have deleted all social media. I know people who have deleted all social media applications, only accessing from their home computer. I know people who have picked one specific platform to engage in (or not engage in) while maintaining others. While the solutions differ, it is easy to trace a thread through the common issues.

Paired with positivity

Some people find a great sense of camaraderie and support in the constant level of engagement found on the internet. Actually, many studies seem to show that individuals suffering from depression and loneliness have found significant mood improvement by being a part of an online community. It’s worked wonders for me, too! I am in no way stating that social media or mobile device usage is a bad thing at its core. It’s more about maintaining emotional control over the actions we may otherwise think of as inconsequential. I can only examine my own experience and the discussions I’ve had with people close to me to find ways to exist in these spaces while staying grounded and positive.

Getting to know ourselves

In closing, I hope that we can move through life with a tighter grasp on our interactions with one another and the devices we use. Even more, I think we neglect the way these elements of our lives impact our psyche and how we feel about ourselves. Those effects are more prevalent than we realize. Whether we are actually existing in an elaborate cosmic game of The Sims or not, I can assure you we all have more to offer than highs and lows, ones and zeroes.

If you are suffering from depression or anxiety, please do not be afraid to seek help. Whether it’s a friend, family member, co-worker, therapist, or anyone in between, there is no shame in talking about these feelings. You are loved and you are valued. If you take anything away from this post at all, I would hope it to be that. 

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