It used to be that when people were down and out, they’d hit a smoky bar for a while, and drown their sorrows in a beer. For millennials, the bar stool has been replaced with a computer chair, the drink traded in for cat videos.
Or, more accurately, cat videos coupled simultaneously with web surfing, video games, TV or music. According to new research from Michigan State University, the behavior known as “media multitasking” has an undeniable relationship with anxiety and depression, and it’s the youth of America leading the charge in that arena. That relationship, however, remains unclear.
“We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it’s that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems,” said lead researcher Mark Becker of the study.
Using video games and listening to music at the same time, though, generally doesn’t inspire anxiety or depression—unless what you’re playing and listening to sucks. And, of course, there were people with mood disorders long before the Internet. It would be nice, though, if we could pin my generation’s general fucked-up-edness on that dang ol’ Internet and those silly vidya games.
That, however, is not the case. As someone who deals with depression and anxiety regularly, my media multitasking is at its height when I’m at my emotional worst. The depression comes first, as it has for humans for thousands of years, so I dive into the electronic world seeking endless stimuli to escape from the negativity depression and anxiety bring. And for a while, it works.
But it’s a vicious cycle. The web is a full immersion experience—it envelopes you, removing you from the outside world and increasing isolation, which in turn leads to more anxiety and depression. Those emotions, of course, must be quelled with—what else?—more cat videos and channel surfing. From there, the process begins again, ad finitum. Psychologists call that a “self-reinforcing negative feedback loop.”
In that sense, media multitasking is taking the place of the bar, or the gym, or any other place people go to take their minds off their troubles. The difference here is the inherent social isolation the web provides in its all-encompassing content delivery. Drinking, working out, attending workshops–all of these are social pursuits different from sitting in your room reading Reddit. That change, as with most antisocial behaviors, leads to a more solitary existence, thereby sticking the emotional process on repeat.
And, thanks to millennials, the practice is only increasing. Over the past decade, media use among young Americans increased just 20 percent, while media multitasking jumped 120 percent for young people in the same period, says Becker. Seems that we’re more prone to media multitasking because our brains work differently from other generations, being able to engage a larger amount of information more fluidly. We’re digital natives, the thought process goes, so it comes naturally.
Unfortunately, however, we’re also really depressed and anxious. More Generation Y members suffer from depression than ever before, and more than half say the stress they experience has increased in the past five years. Being in our 20s, we generally don’t seek help for our mental troubles, and instead are more likely to escape into video games.
We click through links all day long, watching videos and television and listening to music at the same time, never leaving a chance for reflection or some time to slow down and just be. Drifting from idea to idea, there is no concrete process, goal or outcome in sight—except for some distraction from the negativity we feel. Our hyperlink-heavy world is, in effect, the exact opposite of meditation or reflection.
Moderation, a concept with which many young people are not familiar, is the key here. The Internet is not inherently a good or bad thing, it’s not something with an agenda to depress or elevate your emotional condition—it is a tool. It can serve as an incredible research resource, a way to have fun, or a crutch for our potentially crippling mental health issues. To break the cycle only requires that we stop turning to the web as our collective generational blankie.
Now go outside and play.