The Rise Of Anxiety Due To Instant Messaging And Digital Connection

In case I am wondering why I am, at one level, personally shook in response to the book Digital Minimalism by computer science professor Cal Newport, and at a second level, shook for society en masse, look no further than this statement from Newport’s investigation into the present crisis on college campuses:

She [the head of a mental health service at a well-known university] told me that everyone seemed to suddenly be suffering from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. When I asked her what she thought caused the change [from previous cohorts of students born prior to 1995], she answered without hesitation that it probably had something to do with smartphones. The sudden rise in anxiety-related problems coincided with the first incoming classes of students that were raised on smartphones and social media. She noticed that these new students were constantly and frantically processing and sending messages. It seemed clear that the persistent communication was somehow messing with the students’ brain chemistry. (pg 105 of Digital Minimalism) [emphasis added]

This bares repeating: messing with the student’s brain chemistry. Newport highlights studies by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology and expert on the study of generational differences, demonstrating in her work that the ‘iGen’ generation (born after 1995) and Millennials (born between 1981-1995) are displaying the sharpest spike in generational behavioral differences ever recorded. In other words, the way the iGen cohort behaves compared to Millennials is the largest difference in behavior between succeeding generations since psychological observations have been occuring.

I am going to agree with this statement and its revelations until proven otherwise for now, and work from this baseline in writing what follows. Let’s say Newport, Twenge, anonymous school therapist are right in their hypothesis.

What are the smartphones doing to us? To me? 

If I look personally at the first level, I can say given whatever preexisting cognitive conditions I unknowingly have, over usage of texting and instant messaging serve as detrimental tools instead of beneficial. The key being over usage.

Let’s say my ‘shyness’ I’ve always had in life is some form of communicative hindrance. Now, add the medium of constantly typing to people in a manner which allows for backspacing, editing, getting my random thought out there minus my speech impediment (yes, I was in speech therapy most of my young elementary school life), and all of a sudden the hypothesis of an altering brain chemistry in order to process and keep up with frantic, constant inputs from other people, let alone my own participation, is an urgent call to modify my behavior sooner than later.

Of which I have already.

Initially after reading the book, I entered into a state of digital minimalism as prescribed by Newport. This meant not checking instant messaging, not texting unless it was an emergency or to coordinate meeting with someone, and certainly the removal of social media apps or any distracting apps at all from my phone.

I was two weeks into drastically cutting down my messaging to friends. Not a full cut off like Newport recommends, but drastically diminished. 

And I have to say I was clearer thinking. I wasn’t as anxious. In fact there was an anxiousness of some other variety I didn’t even know was present to me until I cut off the constant engagement of messaging and connection.

I have unlocked some portion of my mind where, and this is the kicker, I recall being in undergraduate libraries circa 2005, reading class material and only focusing on the material. Not switching tabs every 10 minutes in my open browsers. Focusing intently on what I need to do. Not checking my analog cell phone for notifications. 

To stress the point being made by Newport and others, my brain chemistry already begun changing for the better in this detox period. There is no question. I was recovering a state of focus I’ve experienced, oddly enough, as a teenager and young college student.

As for the iGen cohort, they’ve only known instant messaging. What’s at stake?

There is an anxiety rising like we have not witnessed en masse. The generation born after 1995 have been bombarded with constant connection and are increasingly anxious over things that people wouldn’t normally have the time for.

The band Fit For A King emphasized this on a recent track. As an interview from Altpress reveals about the song When Everything Means Nothing:

Fit For A King’s Ryan Kirby told AP that he knows people who are depressed because their lives don’t seem to be going as well as some people who share a lot on social media.

“I just wanted people to know that no one is living a perfect life,” Kirby says. “If you are struggling with things like depression and anxiety, it’s normal. It doesn’t make you less than a bunch of other people. A lot of other people go through the same thing.”

As the opening line of the song says:

“One’s and zero’s fill my eyes
Am I supposed to be like everybody else?”

Small Spark

A small spark vs a great forest. A dark, dense forest. A forest providing beauty, and shade from the sun.

But perhaps too much shade.

The forest as a dark, scary, haunting place is a metaphor carried through the centuries inside the human psyche, found in our collective storytelling.

The forest is a tool shading us from the sun. Dimming the power of light. As beautiful as the forest is, crossing from forest edge into a clearing can surprise our eyes as we adjust to the intense light of the approaching meadow, as if someone flipped a switch on.

As much as we are able to see while walking inside the forest, it is the tree canopy screening the full amount of light possible to us. The forest is ‘dark’ to us during peak daytime.

Forests are screening out the most light available to us. The light is there. But we are lost inside the forest which is always providing a diminished version of the light.

Perhaps, the forest needs to be removed if we can’t find our way out.


There is also the metaphor of a seemingly insignificant small spark, be it fire or a passing thought, having an enormous, disproportional affect on it’s surroundings.

One small careless incident, and the whole forest burns down.

One small careless word, and a kingdom crumbles.

One small thoughtful daily act, and darkness itself begins to fade.

When I consider the warning how a small spark can burn a forest down, I find it as a warning of thoughtful discernment. The message isn’t “don’t be careless and screw everything up.” What if the message is “a small spark can take on a great forest.”

We should decide with care which forests to burn down. There are forests preventing us from full access to the Light.

There are forests of oppression, shielding the Light of all we can be if not for unjust systems.

There are forests of depression, shielding the Light that is telling us we are tremendously valued as we are.

There are forests of bitterness, shielding the Light trying to tell us to let go, move on, and walk forward humbly motivated.

There are forests of lies, shielding the Light of Truth by using Light itself in a very diminished, altered state.

A small spark, the smallest amount of hope you could possibly imagine, is enough. It’s always just enough. It will light a new light as it burns the forest down. What is left is more Light. The Light which was diminished. A Light we only saw a burst here and there of through the forest’s thick tree canopy.

We had no idea how bright it was outside the forest.

But liberated from the dark forest we lived in, are we not tasked to carefully burn down forests of lies, oppression, worthlessness, shame, anger, or bitterness we see others are wandering in? Setting a small spark in our forest takes resolve, but it only has to be a small spark.

Burn down the forest of shame, bitterness, hopelessness, all which shields Light.

A Lot Has Changed In The Past (2)Year

Wage War has the song that defines my last two years. It’s going to be my anthem, my marker of these years.

The chorus says it all. But I’ll get there. 

First a walk up to the chorus with a verse punching me in the gut: 

Let’s get this straight
A lot has changed in the last year
Thought I had everything together
But watched it all disappear

It is remarkable what has disappeared from me. Previous to 2 years ago, I thought I was at least on the trajectory of putting it all together. I knew I didn’t have it all together. But I was on the correct path.

Silly me. 

I watched a lot of ‘stuff’ disappear. What’s remaining in the process? I’m finding the Person I always identified as the core behind everything. 

This is where every biblical metaphor of pruning, burning away, and seeing what’s left over applies to my last two years.

Thought I had everything together takes on a unique meaning for me. I didn’t arrogantly believe I had it all together. In fact swaying heavily in the other direction, I was already well on the way of holistic improvements a year, two years, really a few years in the making because of an acknowledgment of not having things together. Improvements made because of the humble identification of desperately needed change.

So when the hits started coming one after another over the past two years, all my personal improvements felt for not.

These personal improvements ironically had no challenging places to test themselves out in (or at least not in the arenas I figured I would apply my personal improvements in).

In other words, if I could establish habitual changes when times were ‘good,’ without realizing it, I was being prepared to keep it up when times became ‘bad.’ 

It’s kinda like the stakes were raised so change wouldn’t be on my terms anymore.

So here I am putting my past two years into perspective, and with everything that is burned up and gone, it is what remains which brings me to my knees.

This chorus. It stuns me:

Now I see, I was broken to be made a better me

There are so many defeats I’ve had to deal with. There are many incredibly significant moments of pruning. What’s astonishing within this reflection is how I have become a better me in the process. This is the best version of myself ever. I have never been ‘clearer.’ 

A career stall actually turned into a time period of incredible learning through massive amounts of reading and writing, all combining to solidify my why.

An empathy I possessed intellectually a decade ago as a believer has now manifested itself personally through intense breaking and healing. Frankly put, as I reflect back on the idealistic 22 year old Jesus follower, having consumed massive volumes of early 2000’s Christian blogosphere material, and beginning their graduate studies with the aim of ‘getting into’ a field based on helping people, I see a person only scratching the surface of servant-hood. 

The ‘better me‘ standing now embraces hardship completely different. I had somehow avoided major pains in my life and figured I could serve others out of a timid, shy, intellectual point of view.

But I was finally broken so that I can look into someone’s eyes and see their pain better. 

I was assuredly empathetic before. But pain? Obstacles? Losing it all? Terror?

I’ve come into contact with pain I’d wish on no one. And yet here I am on the other side of it. I have learned the art and practice of taking the obstacle as a learning tool, as a data point. 

Am I still here? Is it morning? Is it a new day? 

Then be grateful.

Is Jesus still standing with me? He sure is.

Then be faithful.

And now I….

‘Had to learn to let it go and let it be.’ 

This is the clear marking of ‘forward.’ There are things I simply must let go. Even the process of breaking must be let go at some point. 

There are burdens too heavy to carry on my own. They were never meant to be my burdens. 

Now I can start fresh over again changing things I am actually tasked to change. Not things I have no control over. Only the pieces I have been given to put together.

The serenity prayer is on my heart like never before.