The New Anxiety

(c) Andrew Safer 2014

In the prehistoric pre-Internet days, there were far fewer distressing things to be worried about, and we weren’t finding out about them in real time. Today, headlines like this, accompanied by arresting images, greet us larger than life before our morning coffee: Most Face Masks In China Don’t Work And Pollution Is Getting Worse. 1 The image of countless Chinese citizens with their mouths and noses covered, resolutely trekking to work, immediately springs to mind. Thanks to the Web’s interconnectedness, it’s nothing to put ourselves in another’s shoes. Keeping a sense of perspective, however, is a different matter. We can easily be swallowed up whole. Our knee-jerk reaction to a barrage of doom-and-gloom images gives new meaning to psychologist Rollo May’s statement: “In anxiety, it is the security pattern itself which is threatened.” 2

Today, information and money are moved around the globe in real time: news coverage, financial transactions, commodity trading, e-commerce. The world oil price slides and wreaks instant havoc on provincial budgets. What’s happening now muscles its way to the front of the line, unseating everything else. An incoming e-mail dings and, in a heartbeat, steals us away from priority work.

It must be challenging to be growing up in this 24/7 smartphone culture! When I was in junior high, there was a guy named Larry who decided I was a jerk, called me names, and enlisted his friends to torment me. It was hell, but it was a hell that was predictable because I always knew where the abuse would be coming from. One recess, I couldn’t take it anymore. Larry and I duked it out, and I held my own. That was the last time he bothered me, and no other bullies came crawling out of the woodwork afterwards.

Since then, bullying has turned into a very different beast—a many-headed Hydra. There are multiple sites where young people can be tormented—Facebook, Myspace, Instagram, and all the others I don’t even know about, including places where anyone can spread venom anonymously. If, in a “weak” moment, Johnny happens to be listening to his Math teacher, he’s taking the risk of being trashed behind his back in the recesses of cyberspace, with everyone else watching.

There’s another compelling force that keeps young people glued to their devices, and feeling anxious when they’re separated from them. For the old folks reading this, imagine you’re 15. You can stay in touch with your best friend(s) any time of the day or night, no matter where they are. You have a constant companion you can trust, in an otherwise alien world. Now, would you want to miss out on the latest gossip, secret, plan, drama?

The flipside of this ideal world is nomophobia (short for “no-mobile-phone-phobia”), a psychological attachment to the smartphone. “Symptoms include feelings of panic or desperation when separated from your smartphone, not being able to focus on conversations at work, and constantly checking phones for notifications,” explains Madeline Stone in “Smartphone Addiction Now Has a Clinical Name”. 3 Oh—and next time your e-mail chime dings, check out your breathing. If you’re holding your breath, you’ve got e-mail apnea, a name coined by technology consultant, writer and former Apple and Microsoft executive Linda Stone. “It reflects the anxiety many of us feel as we check for new messages in our in-boxes, not knowing what new fires we’ll have to put out or what problems we’ll have to solve.” 4

1 Grace Li, Reuters, “Most Face Masks in China Don’t Work and Pollution Is Getting Worse”, Business Insider, May 24, 2014
2 Rollo May (1950), The Meaning of Anxiety, New York: Norton, 1979, p. 181
3 Madeline Stone, “Smartphone Addiction Now Has a Clinical Name”, Business Insider, July 21, 2014
4 Soojung-Kim Pang, Alex, The Distraction Addiction, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013, p. 18, 19

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