Neil Nedley, MD

Dr. Neil Nedley is a board-certified Internal Medicine specialist. He is founder and medical director of the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery and Optimize Your Brain programs. Dr. Nedley also serves as President of Weimar Institute. He is well known worldwide as a public speaker and writer. Dr. Nedley has a passion for helping people from the depths of depression and anxiety to the pinnacle of success and fulfillment.

Dr. Nedley and his wife Erica have four sons. Together they enjoy numerous outdoor activities and listening to sacred and classical music.

The Health Effects of Technology

in Summer 2022   |
Published on 07/01/2022   |
19 min | <<|>>

Someone asked me the other day, “Why is mental illness so much more common among young people today than in previous years?” But not everyone is in agreement with that assessment.

Some young people believe that there has been no real increase in mental illness, but rather a greater awareness of a long-standing issue. Since it is now socially acceptable to be mentally ill, people are willing to talk about their issues. In the past there was a stigma attached to being mentally ill. Things have changed to the point now that if you’re a young person and you’re not on antidepressants, you aren’t normal!

The idea that being mentally ill is normal is actually false. This supposed normalization of mental illness in society does not account for the rapid rise that we see now. The truth is that symptoms of poor mental health were in reality far less prevalent before 2011 than they are now. Rates of depression and anxiety have more than doubled since then.

America has led the way worldwide in this rise of mental illness in the young, but other countries are catching up. It turns out that there is a very consistent association between the use of technology, and smart phones in particular, and mental illness. By the year 2011 when over half of Americans owned a smartphone, a noticeable rise in mental illness was noted in the young; this correlation is seen in every country once over half of its population owns a smartphone.

Why? The smartphone is a super stimulus. It has all of your friends, the public library, any newspaper you want, and photos of everyone you know, a TV, a radio, and additional photos and information on almost everyone in whom you might have an interest. Plus it’s a camera and a theater. It can host boisterous parties. And it’s all compressed into one small object about the size of your hand.

Whenever it rings or buzzes it interrupts your train of thought. You can’t keep your mind off of it. Studies show that when a text message comes in, blood pressure goes up whether you check the text of not. The same is true of cortisol levels.

Using phones or devices for education has not proven to be very effective. Students who go online to do their homework or to find information for class are distracted from their original purpose within 0-5 minutes and begin looking at other things. They might be innocent things, but it is the division of attention that is causing changes in our ability to focus in a very important part of the frontal lobe: the anterior cingulate gyrus, which is precisely the area that is needed to handle distressing emotions. If the brain doesn’t develop the ability to focus, it will not be able to handle stressful emotions. Humanity’s ability to focus is at an all-time low. That’s why two minute YouTube videos are much more popular than one-hour long videos, unless the longer video has rapid scene of reference changes found in entertainment movies. But these movies also impede the ability to focus. People who can’t focus can’t learn.

When 50% of the population of a country owns a smartphone, rates of depression and anxiety skyrocket. Even in countries like Kenya, which historically have very low rates of depression, we are seeing massive increases in suicide rates and depression, corresponding to when over 50% of Kenyans acquired a smartphone.

One of the reasons smartphones are so dangerous is social media, which is based largely on images. These often digitally-altered images are not based on truth. Sometimes people will take 1,000 pictures of themselves before finding just the “perfect” photo to post. While social media purportedly exists to foster connection and friendship, in reality it engenders competition, comparisons and feelings of low self-worth.

The Bible says, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12, NKJV).

People at first are attracted to social media in order to connect, but most people eventually end up comparing themselves to others much more than connecting with them.

We once witnessed a telling example of how social media posts do not portray the truth. We were traveling up a fjord in New Zealand on a tour boat. Before us was a gorgeous, 5,000 foot waterfall. Two ladies who were traveling together were engaged in a heated argument. They were very upset with each other. But when the boat reached the perfect location for a selfie, they paused their argument to take a selfie of them smiling and looking happy. After taking the selfie, they stopped smiling and the fighting resumed. Anyone seeing their post would think they were having a great time, but in reality they were miserable.

What is really happening is that we are comparing straw men and women. People edit out their flaws in the pictures they post. It is an unrealistic representation of who they are. A few months ago an uncomplimentary, unedited photo of one of the Kardashians surfaced in the media. They were so upset to be revealed as less attractive than the false images that had been up until that point exclusively portrayed to the public.

Add these challenges to the fact that accurate, truthful information is often censored by the ten tech giants that often only allow their distorted narratives on crucial topics to be viewed on the internet.

When people do a search for gender dysphoria, for example, they won’t find the truthful scientific answer. If they are curious to know about sex, they will not find a portrayal of the biblical model of exclusive sex within marriage. They will only be able to access false views of intimacy such as pornography, prostitution or casual sex which are false pictures of love. When people become attracted and drawn to falsehoods, it can ruin relationships and ruin the brain.

God Himself knew there would be major adverse consequences if He were worshiped through images. All the images of Christ portray Him in a false light. The internet is full of such representations. Often the real truth about various issues cannot be found on the internet or it has been censored.

What is the answer?

In this age it is unrealistic for most people to get rid of their devices altogether. That isn’t the long term answer. However, for those who are addicted to their phones, taking a complete electronic fast for six weeks has been found to be very helpful. After that, use of digital media should be minimal and restricted to less than one hour a day for non work-related activity. And it’s not just what you want to look at, because being on the internet with no purpose is more than a waste of time — it actually causes adverse biochemical changes to the brain.

I highly recommend the book, Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport, a secular computer programmer. He says the only way we can have success in utilizing our devices is when we treat tech the way the Amish do. When a new technology comes out, the Amish look at it and ask, What are the downsides? If they decide the downsides, even on occasion, outweigh the benefits of technology, they don’t allow it in their community.

It’s alright to use apps that don’t get you hooked, like the alarm clock, maps, a calculator, All Trails, Audioverse, EGW or the Bible, for example.

Eliminating social media will be very helpful for most people. I have a Facebook account but I don’t even know how to get on it. I don’t monitor it. Someone else posts announcements on it for me when I have a face to face presentation. I never use social media as a means of connecting personally with people because that would take me away from real face to face interactions with people.

If you’re someone who gets stuck on YouTube, the wise choice would be to prevent it from ever being available or make it password-protected with an accountability partner.

Other major distractions created by smartphones are the push notifications for such things as new text messages and emails. It’s a good idea to turn these off. Check your email once a day instead of throughout the day.

Everyone needs to focus their brains on the task at hand. Otherwise, if your brain is being interrupted by notifications throughout the day, the anterior cingulate gyrus in the frontal lobe begins to prune itself because focused attention is no longer needed, also compromising the ability to manage distressing emotions.

These challenges point to an underlying need for each of us to exercise self-control, a fruit of the Spirit which results from full surrender of the heart and mind to Christ. In Romans chapter seven Paul wrote of the challenge of being lured into doing the things he didn’t want to do. But personal encounters with Christ such as he had on the road to Damascus led to a new experience in Paul’s spiritual walk. No longer was he captive to the discouraging cycle of stumbling and falling, sinning and repenting as he surrendered to his new identity in Christ. As he was taught of the Lord, he would submit his will to Him and not go back to his old ways.

When addressing these issues with our children, we need to understand that they don’t have a mature frontal lobe capable of controlling their media choices on their own. They might have right desires, but they need a guide in making right choices.

Recommendations for children

It’s best to keep children away from screens and phones as long as you can — none before age 12. When a child reaches age 12, you will want to make sure all the child parameters are in place on their device. They should not be able to surf freely.

Unfortunately, a lot of children will learn more from their devices than they will from the average parent. When this occurs they will stop asking parents questions, instead seeking out answers online and thinking that the device knows more than mom and dad. The internet is biased. Children will not learn factual answers on issues such as gender or other important issues facing families today.

We have found that many of the individuals who attend our inpatient anxiety and depression recovery programs are so addicted to their devices that they say they would rather fast from food for 10 days than be without their devices (or smart phone) for 10 days. They believe their anxiety and depression will increase without their phone.

I’ve seen situations where children hate their parents if the parents try to take their devices away. I’ve seen them threaten suicide. In one case a child jumped out of a moving car and died because their mom took away their phone. The addictive element with devices is stronger than alcohol. Alcohol is very addictive, but this is even worse.
It was never God’s intent that all humanity would live in one place, united, all receiving the same information. To slow the proliferation of sin, it was His purpose that we would spread out, rather than congregating in cities. When the tower builders at Babel ignored God’s instructions, He intervened by confounding the languages and separating people so they would be raised by families, not by cities.

These devices have effectively nullified the division of languages. All humanity is now uniting over the information shared on the internet and which is accessible to all via their phones. And it’s possible to predict what people will believe based on how much time they spend on their phones.

In order to preserve God’s order in the home, parents must have good media restrictions in place, such as not allowing it at home or else carefully regulating its use.

Families can benefit from spending time together, time with God, and allowing time for meditation and prayer. Children especially need to spend time working with their hands to aid in the development of their brains.

In our culture children experience a lot of pressure from peers to view content on their devices. When I was growing up, my father was ahead of the game regarding entertainment TV. None was allowed in our house. My friends would talk about all the shows they were watching. It all sounded so appealing. But the only time I got to see these programs was when I was visiting at a friend’s house. But as we got older I noticed that my peers were interested mostly in superficial things while I was more interested in acquiring true knowledge. At campmeeting I preferred going to adult meetings even as a youth.

Parents today can stimulate a love for learning in their children by restricting media input and spending time with them in the garden or doing chores. When I was growing up my father utilized mealtimes as an opportunity for education. He was always teaching and very engaging. He would teach us by asking questions. He would ask us to tell him about the events of that day.

Today, parents often have little idea what is going on with their kids who are absorbed in their media devices; kids seldom tell their parents what they’re going through.

Doctors, if you are addicted to your device, your children will be addicted 10 times more. It’s important for us as health professionals and parents to lead the way. When you get home, don’t sink into a device. If you do, your kids will model that. I would recommend you turn your own smartphone into a “child phone” which can be done on I-phones and androids. Work with an accountability partner to take away any problem apps for you or any problem sections of the internet such as YouTube. Let them know the password so you can’t override it unless your partner agrees. This has helped scores of people be far more successful in their families and has opened the way for them to flourish.

Furthermore, godly intimacy, which is the only basis for true happiness in marriage or the family, is never displayed online. There are a lot of things you miss out on when a portion of your free time is spent online. Many think that if they are not on their device they will just be bored by sitting within four walls of their house with nothing to do. False! It is not natural to do that. When you quit using devices you will spend more time outdoors, working with your hands, or in real face to face interactions with family and others. This is so much healthier for your brain and your relationships.

May God help us and give us wisdom as we seek His guidance and protection from Satan’s traps.

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