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?”

Too Much Found His Mind

Most of my waking hours I am speechless, and I know some friends of mine won’t understand what I just wrote there. But most of the time I’m not saying much.

Or just saying surface level canned statements. You know:

The weather is bad,

Wow was the traffic a mess today,

How ’bout them Cowboys?

However, much closer to the forefront of my mind are deep analytical, historical, emotional and socio-political ramifications of you asking me “so how’s it going?”

How’s it going?! Well, considering both of us just heard a little about maintaining good personal finances, here are my thoughts on the history of the Christian Monastic Community and the distribution of possessions, successful and failed attempts at communal living, and the complete horror of the pervasiveness of the American Dream within our culture.

That’s what I want to respond to “how’s it going.”

Because I mean let’s just get frank and cut the small talk.


In mewithoutYou’s song Bethlehem, WV there is a line right in the beginning which caught my attention and gave me pause of everything I was probably thinking about at the time:

A stranger’s face appeared—
They say he lost his mind
(Or too much found his mind?)
I hear it all the time

Too much found his mind? 

I immediately resonated and searched the lyrics to see if others caught it. Sure enough, too much found his mind proved too good a line to go unnoticed. It reminds one person of Nietszche’s madman metaphor.  To someone else, a possible reference of John The Baptist.

The metaphor of Nietzche’s Madman is about someone who is deeply perceiving a lot, too much, or perhaps all which needs to be perceived, in contrast to the masses asleep at their own wheels. I sense it is more about the person making connections with all which is finding their mind.

It speaks to a kind of ‘awareness’ of things. Awareness provides the opportunity to make pathways between seemingly unrelated items, a connection process of information more than a lack of perception of said items in isolation.

For example, John The Baptist was witness to the same information as anyone else of his time: socio-political movements, imperial occupations, and sacred scriptural promises of a coming liberating savior who will tidy everything up when the time is right. It’s just while others are giving their attention to individual portions, only a few pieces, or woefully unaware of anything not involving only themselves, John was preaching the way he was preaching because he was putting a few pieces together.

When I am looking to add to a conversation I often find myself wanting to take someone straight to the implications of what we are really talking about. How does this connect to events of the past? In what ways is our discussion more about selfish ambition versus growing yourself and challenging your own thoughts? How did you feel when that happened or this news came to you?


I began sharing a little more here and there to others in the above manner. Instead of maintaining surface level, I’d go where I am residing presently. Speaking directly of the things which I was constantly connecting and what I found worthy of actually sharing.

As if I had forgot or discredited what my grade school teachers would always say of me, a few individuals paused me in recent years because they saw the 10,000 foot view of what I was doing. In the middle of conversation they would say “wait, you’re reading all these books right now and connecting what’s in them?” Or “not everyone is still enough in a moment to capture the thought you’re expressing.”

These were long lost encouragements I had stuffed away or discarded entirely a long time ago. I was hearing them afresh from encouraging people.


Perhaps I was sharing more readily again because two things finally started kicking in.

One was leaning completely into what happens to me within certain environments. So much finds my mind just sitting at a coffee shop, looking out at the sunny day outside, wondering about the old man in the corner of the shop and his long contemplative look. I guess at his hopes and dreams, the life he has lived, and the regrets he has faced head on or is still running from. The next thing I know I have jotted down some lines of poetry without anticipation. Poetry helps condense volumes of things finding my mind into digestible portions. And it comes when I am surprisingly at rest.

The other helpful practice for me is discerning what continually rests on my mind. Daily journal practices of writing anything and everything that comes to mind is an excellent sifting exercise. Once on paper or on computer screen, we see what is taking up unneeded space.

We don’t ask for some of the things which find their way to our minds, but we can do a fantastic job of filtering down what matters most.

Too much on our minds can be made into a blessing.