We are living through a pandemic of psychiatric illness—depression, ADHD, personality disorders, and resulting psychosocial carnage and suicide, are on the rise; directly linked to electronic devices and social media, the severity of symptoms is seen to increase in proportion to the amount of a person’s screen time. 

These maladies have especially increased since the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent social isolation and environmental deprivation. An August 2020 CDC report found that over 25% of youths had considered suicide in the last month. The April 2021 report found increasing trends in anxiety and depression corresponding to the pandemic trends when pulling from 800,000 US adults over 6 months. The US Census Bureau reported anxiety or depression for only 11% of adults in mid-2019, but that increased to 42% by December of 2020 (Abbott, 2020).

These disorders are simultaneously cultural, and induced by mitochondrial dysfunction. Disruption of cellular energy production is involved in the pathogenesis of depression, bipolar, ADHD, autism, and the personality and degenerative disorders. 

One problem with typical systemic critique is that it focuses solely on sociological perspectives on why things are bad, neglecting the mechanisms down to the biological level that are making things bad, and how elucidating those mechanisms can offer solutions. 

Revealing the neurological and mitochondrial damage induced by modern cultural artifacts may be as urgent as the race of the tobacco control activists to expose the health dangers of cigarettes, if we are to bring about the same legislation that regulates the tobacco companies, onto the tech companies.

The cultural landscape we find ourselves in serves to accelerate mitochondrial dysfunction: blue light in our homes, offices, and electronics derange our neurology and circadian rhythm. Sedentary behavior encouraged and required by many modern jobs stunts blood flow to the brain and causes insulin resistance, which renders our cells unable to metabolize glucose for energy (Hamburg, et al., 2007; Carter, et al., 2018).

The combination of caffeine, sugar, smartphones, and social media synergize to rewire the modern citizen’s mind toward hyperactive novelty-seeking behavior. This is a buffet of quick-energy, instant-gratification, unlimited-variety novelty, but without any of the long-range holistic features that real food, real connection, real achievement bring.

Biological adaptation to widespread smartphone addiction, acting almost as a modern Plague of Egypt, is creating horn-like bone-growths out of the bases of skulls in an increasing part of the population. Bone spurs in the shape of horns are now seen in hundreds of people of all ages, with younger people having bigger horns. The origin is [speculatively] a result of the joint inflammation that occurs from chronic forward head-tilting that comes with the use of smartphones and tablets (Shagar & Sayers, 2018). Earlier studies have found that the majority of university students and faculty experience neck pain as a result of smartphone and tablet use, so the advent of bone spurs can be seen as the next step in inflammatory adaptations after simple pain (Berolo, et al., 2011).

On the literal, neurological level, smartphones and hyperstimulation-technology siphon energy from the human brain. Cognitive performance is lower when our smartphone is present, even when our smartphones are turned off (Ward, et al., 2017).

Excessive smartphones and internet use disrupts the brain’s delicate ratio of inhibitory-to-excitatory neurotransmitters. A South Korean MRI study found that youths with internet and smartphone addictions had an excess of inhibitory GABA compared to the excitatory glutamate and glutamine in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is a higher-thinking brain region involved in attention-management and decision-making (Seo, et al., 2020). A malfunctioning ACC is observed in ADHD, OCD, social anxiety, and major depression. The lead researcher, Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, explained that “the higher the score, the more severe the addiction”. When the addicted subjects completed cognitive behavioral therapy, their neurotransmitters normalized. Dr. Seo believes the increased GABA may be related to an overall neurological loss of cognitive and emotional processing caused by the tech addiction.

Multitasking, which is encouraged—even required—by social media usage, rapidly depletes the brain of its glucose stores, exhausting our ability to function, to think about what is happening around us (Gailliot, et al., 2007). Our critical-thinking abilities are first impaired, then perpetually blunted, by the habits that mainstream media and institutions promote and market to the population.

Physiological inflammation hinders the higher thinking parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, so the tech-addled subject is hazily thrown about in a vicious circle (Gassen, et al., 2019). Ultra-processed foods and blue light from screens lead to poor sleep, which impairs brain function and the integrity of the gut barrier, which leads to further inability to control one’s habits, which further primes the victim to seek novelty via hyperstimuli such as social media, video games, and pornography.

Universally, innovation opens the possibility that it will be misused by a percentage of the society adopting that innovation. The problem is that the current model behind social media, online gaming, and newer online entertainment is designed and optimized for exploiting the primal, novelty-seeking neurology of human beings, to maximize profit and time-spent. 

It is not that 21st century technology is inherently harmful. There are great opportunities bestowed to us by smart-devices and the internet. We are able to connect with people and ideas that we would  otherwise never be exposed to, and to express ourselves in ways completely new to human experience. But we are also hindered in that to engage with these platforms is to submit our brains to the algorithms whose very purpose is to manipulate us into needing that platform more. 

“Convivial [jovial] tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion.”
—Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

There is an important difference between the organic motivation to sign onto a platform out of raw motivation, i.e. with a productive task in mind, vs. to sign onto a platform because your neurology has been primed to seek novelty for its own sake, to compel you toward an action without a tangible purpose. The manifestation of this pathology can be seen in any social setting where the default idle behavior is to pull out a smartphone and scroll a newsfeed or check for notifications. That very device that is causing or worsening a psychiatric symptom then becomes the compulsive antidote when the person is suffering those symptoms.

The Centre for Data Ethics & Innovation is fighting for better regulation of technological platforms on the legislative level, and I hope for a day we see a reform of social technology that shifts it more in service of the user. The almost complete contemporary incompetence of major institutions, such as mainstream medicine, makes the prospect of satisfactory social media reform look much less likely, anytime soon. Entrepreneurs have already been releasing products to circumvent addiction, such as the kSafe time-locking container and the minimalist Light Phone.

If we assist the data ethics activists by unplugging as much as possible, we can accelerate their victory and delay the siphoning of brain-energy by the tech conglomerates. By the same token, our own mental worlds may drastically improve.

There are a few ways by which we can radically alter our physiology, strengthening and preserving our minds, our ability to stay calm and think critically.

A paleolithic, ketogenic, carnivore, primal, or at least whole foods diet: Keeping blood sugar balanced and inflammation low by avoiding hyper-processed food-like products, and minimizing or removing grains, dairy, fructose, oxalates, and lectins. This will protect the brain from inflammatory cytokines and pathogens that feed into consumption-culture. Only when our physiology is robust can we hope to think and act with sensibility, undertaking projects in the direction of shaping a better society.

Exercise, when not overdone, calms the brain and upregulates the monoamine neurotransmitters, enhancing attention span, focus, mood, and motivation (Lin & Kuo, 2013). 

Exercise regimes have been shown to improve self-control and decision-making, even up to one month after exercise is ceased (Sofis, et al., 2016). This is partially a result of the chemicals released by exercise itself and partially a benefit of regularly practicing a habit that requires sustained attention. Upregulation of brain GABA receptors and an appropriate increase of brain glutamate are also seen in human exercise. Contrary to an addicted brain-state, exercise balances inhibition and excitation by increasing expression of GAD65, an enzyme that converts glutamate into GABA (Ferreira-Junior, et al., 2019).

Meditation augments and defends the brain’s higher thinking centers while also removing our dependence on them and granting us the ability to quiet down internal dialogue. Grounding ourselves into our bodies, into the present moment of sensory existence, is of great importance in a time where we are constantly being dissociated from our bodies via technological hijacking.

The coupling of exercise and meditation can reconnect one to the present moment, the existence of the self in one’s body, and the beauty of the interaction of the Self and Body with the environment. The richness of life is continually open for rediscovery, but obscured by our present electrifying hyperstimuli.

“Whoever tries to live faster also ends up dying faster. The experience of the duration, and not the number of experiences, makes a life full.”
—Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time

Resources against Hyperstimuli (from /r/nosurf)

Works Cited

Abbott, Alison. “COVID’s Mental-Health Toll: How Scientists Are Tracking a Surge in Depression.” Nature, vol. 590, no. 7845, 2021, pp. 194–195., doi:10.1038/d41586-021-00175-z.

Berolo, Sophia, et al. “Musculoskeletal Symptoms among Mobile Hand-Held Device Users and Their Relationship to Device Use: A Preliminary Study in a Canadian University Population.” Applied Ergonomics, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 371–378., doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2010.08.010.

Carter, Sophie E., et al. “Regular Walking Breaks Prevent the Decline in Cerebral Blood Flow Associated with Prolonged Sitting.” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 125, no. 3, 2018, pp. 790–798., doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00310.2018.

Carter, Sophie E., et al. “Regular Walking Breaks Prevent the Decline in Cerebral Blood Flow Associated with Prolonged Sitting.” Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 125, no. 3, 2018, pp. 790–798., doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00310.2018.

Ferreira‐Junior, Nilson C., et al. “Exercise Training Increases GAD65 Expression, Restores the Depressed GABA A Receptor Function within the PVN and Reduces Sympathetic Modulation in Hypertension.” Physiological Reports, vol. 7, no. 13, 2019, doi:10.14814/phy2.14107.

Gailliot, Matthew T., et al. “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as a Limited Energy Source: Willpower Is More than a Metaphor.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 92, no. 2, 2007, pp. 325–336., doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325.

Gassen, Jeffrey, et al. “Inflammation Predicts Decision-Making Characterized by Impulsivity, Present Focus, and an Inability to Delay Gratification.” Scientific Reports, vol. 9, no. 1, 2019, doi:10.1038/s41598-019-41437-1.

Hamburg, Naomi M., et al. “Physical Inactivity Rapidly Induces Insulin Resistance and Microvascular Dysfunction in Healthy Volunteers.” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, vol. 27, no. 12, 2007, pp. 2650–2656., doi:10.1161/atvbaha.107.153288.

Lin, Tzu-Wei, and Yu-Min Kuo. “Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection.” Brain Sciences, vol. 3, no. 4, 2013, pp. 39–53., doi:10.3390/brainsci3010039.

Luque-Casado, Antonio, et al. “Cognitive Performance and Heart Rate Variability: The Influence of Fitness Level.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 2, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056935.

Maddock, Richard J., et al. “Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity.” The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 36, no. 8, 2016, pp. 2449–2457., doi:10.1523/jneurosci.3455-15.2016.

Seo, H.s., et al. “Changes of Neurotransmitters in Youth with Internet and Smartphone Addiction: A Comparison with Healthy Controls and Changes after Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” American Journal of Neuroradiology, vol. 41, no. 7, 2020, pp. 1293–1301., doi:10.3174/ajnr.a6632.

Shahar, David, and Mark G. L. Sayers. “Prominent Exostosis Projecting from the Occipital Squama More Substantial and Prevalent in Young Adult than Older Age Groups.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-21625-1.

Sofis, Michael J., et al. “Maintained Physical Activity Induced Changes in Delay Discounting.” Behavior Modification, vol. 41, no. 4, 2016, pp. 499–528., doi:10.1177/0145445516685047.

Ward, Adrian F., et al. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, vol. 2, no. 2, 2017, pp. 140–154., doi:10.1086/691462.

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