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?”

Before And After Digital Minimalism

I just don’t see things the same way anymore.

I gave it over six months now to sink in further, see if I just was going through something, a phase or a strong initial reaction.

But no, I am living firmly in the biggest before and after of my life.

It was a book that did it. Many people have had a similar experience after reading something. It gives the reader no option to continue on in life the same way they were prior to reading it.

Digital Minimalism, by computer science professor Cal Newport, provides this kind of clear demarcation in my life.

I had already caught on prior to reading the book. On the side prior to reading this book, I was already collecting information about the effect the digital world is having on the human psyche. The pastor at the church I attend was also giving a sermon series on the effects social media are having on people when this book was released.

Though Digital Minimalism released in early 2019, my first hard pause regarding this subject happened back in 2016. It was an article published by Andrew Sullivan titled “I Used to Be a Human Being: An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.” I recall reading this and sitting back in my first state of shock going ‘wow, how did Sullivan get into my mind?’

As I sat down to read Newport’s book, stoked about the topic and ready to read, he opens the book by……referring to Sullivan’s article.

I’ll forever remember the airport bar I was sitting at when I read those first lines. My heart skipped a beat in excitement.

I was convicted. And I will get to that. I’ll get to it way in depth. In fact, this entire site will see an extended series all about it. I plan on releasing important observations about this book over time.

But first I must expound on how this book shocked me into B.D.M. (before Digital Minimalism) and A.D.M (after Digital Minimalism).


What Newport does in Digital Minimalism is take the hardest holistic jab at the new digital frontier. He holds no punches back, and it is all backed by research.

Remember. He’s a computer scientist. He’s enthusiastically pro-technology.

After reading this book I am convinced I fell deep into the cognitive, psychological trappings of over stimulation and abuse via instant access to the Internet, and very particularly, access to instant messaging (IM) capabilities. The former, social media and the Internet in general, were predictable; the latter, instant messaging, was the most surprising and most deeply convicting in terms of rebuke of either medium.

Stated explicitly, my approach towards addictive technologies and the social trending topics of our time (in combination with my intellectual curiosity) would lead to daily behaviors where I’d have 35 open Internet browser tabs, skimming social media for opinion after opinion, messaging five to six instant messaging chat groups simultaneously, while all of these inputs from multiple sources created an anxiety of unmet answers to strawman questions via trivial Internet feuds no one would even have in-person in the first place.

There were moments I paused while reading Digital Minimalism and for the very first time saw, felt, went back mentally, to pre-Facebook, pre-instant messaging David. Those were the most surreal moments.

Actually, they were scary.

There was the realization that I substituted in-person conversation (which was already hard for me in life) with instant messaging and texting. Mainly instant messaging. And I mean wholesale swapping out.

Consequently, I know I have operated below my God-given potential for a long time. My intellect, a brilliance reinforced several times over in meaningful deep conversations with mentors in my life, has had its oxygen supply significantly cut off. I realize my ability to hyper-focus is actually a gift and the object of that focus is the critical difference.

This book made me see I can’t focus anymore because I was never progressing in meaningful focus, term paper focus, only work-on-what’s-in-front-of-me focus.

More important than the loss of focus is how I’ve lost what little in-person communicative skills I once had. The tie into instant messaging though, I’m telling you, it floored me. Because it made so much sense.


This is merely a new beginning for me as I’ll return to this theme a lot on this blog. I’ll flush out more of what I just eluded to, what Newport laid out, references he cited, and more.

For now, I realize there is no escaping this theme, even in music.

I knew of the songs which were tackling the issue of the digital mess we’ve entered, but these songs started to churn inside me in a new way after reading Digital Minimalism.

Thrice’s Salt and Shadow provides such a glimpse. From their comeback album of 2016 titled To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere, this song highlights how we are connected via our phones but are becoming deteriorated grey shells of ourselves.

We are connected, but not actually communicating the way our brains are wired to.

In an interview with guitarist Teppei Teranishi, on the topic of the album title’s ancient philosophical reference brought into a modern focus:

…with things like the internet and social media – everybody kind of staring at their phones and not being present…at all. So that was kind of the idea that resonated with us – you think about being on Twitter and constantly on your phone…you’re everywhere, but you’re kind of nowhere, you know what I mean?

I do know Teppei. I do.

As Salt and Shadow says:

“On the edge of a knife, it’s like you’re living your life on the stage,
You’re talking through glass, we’re just square photographs on a page,
Oh, we’re never alone but we’re each in our own little cage.”

Reclaiming Your Environment

I tripped a wire the other day when I combined an old bad habit with a new good habit inside the same environment.

I was inside my car listening to a podcast about incrementally creating better habits daily when I simultaneously hit the drive-thru line. Twice. In the same car ride home.

When I’m in my car driving aimlessly (or purposely like a commute) I find a strong association with hitting fast food lines, with the image of Taco Bell bags strewn across the back passenger floor. This is because I had actually gone through so many drive-thru lines in the exact car I am still driving today, despite going through the massive physical change in my life.

It really hit me after I tossed the empty bag of the second order of Taco Bell down: the physical environment inside my car is associated with reckless eating.

Psychologists point out how environment certainly can become associated with past behaviors, good or bad. A strong mental connection is forged in “learned environments.” Adi Jaffe, Ph.D., writes, “when behaviors are repeated, they can be conditioned to a particular place or situation and these learned habits can be hard to break.” 

If I felt like the driver’s seat of the same car I had done all my caloric drive-thru damage in was triggering, it’s because it actually is.

Place really matters.


Enter the podcasts and lawn cutting season.

I was cutting lawns with a friend and listening to podcasts all day long. A new environment and habit began to forge.

Learning from others via the podcasts while I was smelling freshly cut grass helped re-wire my brain more than it already had, having already lost all my weight.

What made me connect the idea of environmental conditioning with podcasts and my driver’s seat was one more final element…..the smell of….pear? Not sure what the tree was in one customer’s backyard. But I loved running over the fruits because the blade of the mower would slice multiple chunks of the fruit strewn across the backyard. An aroma would fill the air around my riding lawn mower and all of a sudden I was in a Bath & Body Works store. But on a riding lawn mower, sweating.

Scent is closely tied to memory. Add to that the incredible impact environmental conditions have on a student’s ability to learn.

I was hard-wiring my brain with the smell of freshly cut grass, moving scenery, beautiful landscapes, while simultaneously becoming a podcast consuming student listening to personal stories from others who overcome challenges in their lives, and share to help others.

I was consuming advice from some of the world’s leading over-achievers. They were talking about their failures, their insecurities, their bold life-hacks, their methods and routines at approaching life daily. Even their under-achievements and shortcomings.

Hardwired into me now is an association between podcast learning (of the more informative variety [Ferriss, Altucher, StoryBrand, etc.]) and lawn cutting.

And the smell of the freshly sliced fruit in the one backyard.

Now to reclaim the car driver seat forever.

Why not commit to only listening to podcasts out loud in the car on a commute? Taking the good habit, shifting it to an environment once the literal vehicle for a bad habit, is the way to repair the damaged environment.

When I am listening to an informative podcast in my car, I have to listen. I am not listening to my inner-dialogue, no matter how crappy I may feel at the time. Or how good. Sometimes it was moments of euphoric reward that led me to a drive-thru line.

By listening to interviews of people who overcame challenges, I can reclaim an environment which conditioned repeated destructive behavior.  Even a podcast about woodworking will work. Anything to draw my attention towards learning while driving a gas powered vehicle of some sort.

I’m gonna have to get a pear car scent now as the final touch. It will reinforce the process of reclamation.

My car is not a tool to get me into a drive-thru. My car is a tool to teach me one more lesson from one more person who overcame a lot in order to help others.

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.