Student distress is on the rise. According to a 2014 study by the American College Health Association, almost half of students reported feeling hopeless within the last 12 months of that year. Cal Poly counselors say this mirrors what they see daily.
No one knows why: stress, peer pressure, hookup culture, lack of diversity and lack of sleep are all potential culprits. Many or none may be true.
In other words, something has intensified students’ feelings of distress.
One conjecture? Access to technology.
What technological communication lacks
Human connection has always expanded or compressed to accommodate the era, whether it was in the newfound freedom of the telegraph, the rise of instant messaging or emojis used as a primary element in our keyboards.
According to Cal Poly psychologist Hannah Roberts, this day and age’s advancements may pose a unique problem for millennials, who face a daily conflict between their human desire for connections and the changing culture of technology.
“Technology gives us the opportunity to communicate from the safety and defense of a box, but it doesn’t feel the same as being physically with someone; the mirror neurons aren’t firing in quite the same way,” Roberts said.
It’s a paradox, she explained. We have all these great tools for connection, but they also take us away from the in-depth connection we would have in person.
If he’s lucky, political science senior Robert Guerra can see his girlfriend once every few weeks. Face to face, that is. In theory, he can talk to her 24 hours a day, seven days a week; they communicate via phone call, text, Facebook and Snapchat.
But between all that, it’s not enough.
“At some point, I’m not talking to my girlfriend, I’m talking to a screen,” Guerra said. “And even though I do care about my girlfriend and love her, it can be hard to make that connection sometimes.”
Through well-crafted design and million-dollar advertising campaigns, technology gives the guise of having it all. But unlike the internet, real life is four-wheel drive; it’s messy, it treads deeper ground and it fulfills significant physical needs.
Roberts said that, in some cases, using technology can almost mimic the effects of dopamine in the brain.
“If we think about brain chemistry … you’ve got this immediate gratification, you’re excited, it’s a flood,” Roberts said. “But it’s really short-acting and there’s an emptiness that comes after a dopamine rush.”
In-person communication does more: it involves the dopamine of connection, but is grounded by love and bonding hormones, like oxytocin, which hold us even after the interaction has ended, according to Roberts. In substance abuse terms, the use of technology for our interpersonal pursuits is like cocaine.
So, though Guerra can still see his girlfriend through a pixelated screen, it’s not the same.
“At some point, you’re not here, here,” he said. “You’re a couple hundred miles away and I’m just talking to my phone.”
Exchanging social media for mindfulness
Brooke Holland, a nutrition senior had her fair share of social media fixations and said it often only adds fuel to a familiar fire.
“In general, human beings have the tendency to be jealous — we’re curious and want to know,” Holland said. “I think we need to work on that, so having social media isn’t really helping; it just makes people worry and come up with false conclusions.”
Holland said it’s like an itch that almost everyone tries not to scratch, but can’t help scratching anyway.
“Going to Starbucks and seeing every single person behind each other in line, just staring down — seeing that makes me kind of angry because we are losing so much of that personal connection,” Holland said.
When Holland realized she too was part of the problem, she made efforts to change it through something called mindful thinking.
The term may be a buzzword, but mindfulness has been around for centuries.
“We’ve just put a different label on it and we’ve packaged it, but now we recognize how much we need it,” Roberts said. “It’s not until you get so distracted that you realize that you need to come back and be mindful.”
At its core, mindful thinking simply requires intentionally and thoroughly checking in with one’s body, Roberts said. There are multiple ways to do it. Mindful walking is one: instead of using a morning walk to make do-to lists, you notice the world around you by engaging your senses HALT is another method, according to Roberts. Before acting on an emotion, you check in with yourself by asking a series of four questions: Am I feeling hungry? Am I feeling angry? Am I feeling lonely? Or am I feeling tired?”
Being present is an active effort but it does a lot, environmental management and protection senior Daryl Dingman said.
“It takes less to scroll your thumb up and down your screen than it does to pay attention to lecture or watch the whole movie, sure, but you might end up seeing something that you’ll never, ever, ever, ever, ever see on that phone,” Dingman said.