Everyone agrees that Millennials are an overwhelmingly “plugged in” generation. 85% of Millennials own smartphones, and 80% sleep with their phones beside them in bed. I am one such Millennial.
Other research suggests, however, that Millennials seem to find technology stressful. Surveys have shown that technology is causing us all — Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers — more stress. But according to both a recent study by the University of Cambridge and a recent study by the University of Southern California, Millennials are even more stressed out by technology than older generations are. Moreover, a 2014 study out of California State University suggested that Millennials regard not being around their smartphones as a major anxiety trigger. So we’re stressed when we’re around our phones, but also stressed by their absence.
As David Ellis, director of communications studies at York University in Toronto, recently told the PEW Research Center, “I see Millennials as increasingly trapped by the imperatives of online socializing and the opportunities offered by their smartphones to communicate from any place, any time.”
Millennials may feel these pressures the most acutely, but we’re hardly alone: most of us have a love-hate relationship with technology. Every day, I probably hear at least one person complain about their phone, their inundated inbox, or the fact that they’re reachable all the time. And yet recently when I was at a meditation retreat (with limited cell phone use), I found that I couldn’t avoid overhearing people express anxiety about feeling “out of touch.” We know our existence of hyperconnectivity is exhausting, and ostensibly we yearn for a more balanced relationship with technology. But in technology’s absence, we tend to feel afraid. What is the cause of this stress? What are we really afraid of missing out on?
In my personal experience, mindlessly relying on my phone and computer has been a useful, albeit insidious, way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. After all, how many of us regularly accept and embrace those moments when we feel weird or bored or lonely? We usually text a friend, refresh our Twitter feed, or check our email — or reach for a snack or a cigarette. In my own life, I noticed this habit when I quit smoking cigarettes last year. Around that time, a yoga teacher advised me to meditate on what I was feeling during the moments when I craved a cigarette. I realized that I wanted a cigarette most intensely when walking from point A to point B and while waiting for other people to arrive — moments when I had nothing to distract me from the discomfort of simply being with myself. I am sure other smokers can relate to this feeling of cigarette-as-avoidance.
In those weeks after making my decision to quit smoking, I found my anxiety nearly insurmountable. My reaction certainly was not to practice mindfulness and explore the feelings that were coming up for me in each moment. Instead, I found myself completely glued to my phone in the moments in which I’d typically want a cigarette. I’d refresh my email compulsively to ensure that I was “on top of things,” swipe on Tinder to remind myself that I was not completely alone, post on Instagram to get some validation from people that I was interesting and funny. In short, I was replacing one addiction for another, both of them related to keeping myself at a distance from my anxiety. (And yes, technology addiction is an area that researchers are actually exploring.)
Phones and cigarettes are not the only things that help us turn away from the parts of ourselves we don’t like—anxiety, anger, our fears, our unfulfilled desires, and our need to assert boundaries and take care of ourselves. Whether it’s snacking, smoking, or e-mail refreshing, all these avoidance tactics can serve the same purpose. But phones are among the most socially acceptable.
The distraction afforded by constant connection to social media, news, email, and texting may feel comforting in the short term, but in the long term it may sap what poet John Berryman referred to as “inner resources.” In enabling us to avoid ourselves, our phones allow us to look away from anxious feelings instead of trying to resolve them. I’d hazard the guess that when most of us feel that itch to check our email for the umpteenth time while out to dinner — just to make sure we haven’t missed a call — we actually aren’t as concerned with FOMO, or fear of missing out, as we think. Sure, some of us may truly fear the wrath of a demanding boss on the other line, or a friend (or family member) may be in need. But mostly, we’re trapped in that technology-stress paradox: we share the desire for greater freedom from our devices, and yet that very freedom itself causes anxiety. It makes us ask ourselves what life would feel like if we were really forced to sit with ourselves.
Of course, overusing technology may not cause Millennials to be more stressed by it. There’s some evidence that Millennials are just more stressed out than their elders in general. According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association and Harris Interactive, Millennials reported an average stress level of 5.4, on a 10-point scale, compared to 4.7 for Boomers and 3.7 for Matures. 12% of Millennials have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, compared to 8% of Gen Xers and 7% of Boomers.
But the major things that stress Millennials out — money and work, according to the APA/Harris study — are more intuitive. A case could easily be made that Millennials are stressed out by money because they don’t have as much of it as older people do, or that they’re stressed out by work because they have less experience dealing with various professional situations. It’s only with personal technology that Millennials report both greater skill and more stress. “Millennials may embrace technology more enthusiastically than non-Millennials, but larger percentages of them also recognize that using technology comes with consequences,” explained Greg Bovitz, a senior fellow at the Center for the Digital Future, in a public statement.
It’s possible, and often necessary, to write a memo or lengthy email in the midst of feeling lonely or angry at a friend. But mindlessly refreshing your email or smoking a cigarette will not eradicate the loneliness or the anger.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re all stuck between a metaphorical rock and a hard place when it comes to reconciling difficult feelings with the demands of our to-do list.
To me, work-life balance isn’t about compartmentalizing your work in one corner and your life in the other, using avoidance tactics to help you along the way. It’s about noticing those moments in which you really don’t want to deal with yourself. If you’re sad at the office, give yourself permission to feel that way. Allow your feelings to exist long enough for you to realize that they’re not permanent. When I started writing this, I was in an argument with a friend, and still am. Midway through writing, I found myself wanting to organize my iPhoto because why not? But I resisted the urge toward avoidance and I feel less agitated now, simply because I allowed myself to feel bad in the first place.
Source: Harvard Business Review
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