OMA Spotlight on Health

The Physical and Mental Effects caused by Technology and Social Media with Dr. Deepa Soni

August 31, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 24
OMA Spotlight on Health
The Physical and Mental Effects caused by Technology and Social Media with Dr. Deepa Soni
Show Notes Transcript

Technology is part of almost every aspect of daily life now, but what role does it play in our physical and mental health? In a three-part series Dr. Deepa Soni, an emergency room physician at Credit Valley Hospital talks about the impacts of social media and technology. 

OMA Podcast Episode 24 - The Physical and Mental Effects caused by Technology and Social Media 

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Voice-over: In this podcast the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us.

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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan and I’m the Director of Media Relations and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association.

Dr. Deepa Soni: I'm Deepa Soni, I'm an emergency physician at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, and I'm also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. 

Flanagan: We're here today to talk about the physical and mental impact of technology on our lives.

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 Flanagan: What are your thoughts about the effects of social media on mental health? Is there anything we can do? 

Dr. Soni: We don't need to be afraid of our technology, and I'm certainly not here to say that tech is all bad. For most of human history, information was scarce. We are wired to seek information because knowing more kept us safe. Evolutionarily, if we knew what poisonous berry was not safe for us, we wouldn't eat it, and we'd live.

Now, we live in a time of information abundance. It comes at us like a fire hose, almost too much to take in. And now, the scarce resource is not information, it's our attention. And we're losing this ability to decide what is worth paying attention to. This is creating, in people, higher levels of stress. 

So, we're constantly connected 24/7, we can pick up our phone and learn anything about anything, and we find ourselves drawn to our phones, seeking information.

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Dr. Soni: It's also made us more sedentary; 70% of people can reach their phone all day long without moving their feet because it's in their pocket. And this lack of exercise impacts obesity rates, as well as chronic diseases like hypertension, cancer, diabetes, fatty liver, just to name a few.

Our bodies have a delicate balance called the circadian rhythm. It regulates when hormones are released, and when we wake up and fall asleep. The hormone melatonin gets released when receptors in our eyes and brain perceive the absence of blue light.

Blue light in the morning hours is what causes us to be alert and ready for our day. But, in the evening hours, the sky turns to pinks and oranges, and blue disappears from the atmosphere. And it's the absence of blue that triggers the release of melatonin, which causes us to feel sleepy a couple of hours later.

But with people using their phones later and later in the evening hours, blue light is being delivered via the screen to the receptors in our brain and eyes, and delays the release of melatonin and tricks our body into staying alert.

Being on our phones at all hours means that people are shortening the time for sleep. It's a little different now because of COVID, but when life goes back to normal, people still have to get up early for school and work. And being on social media late at night means pushing sleep to the side.

Sleep deprivation causes mood issues, difficulty concentrating, accidents from driving sleepy, making poorer food choices—we tend to crave refined carbohydrates and sweets when we're tired. And all of this impacts our overall health.

As well, sleep is when our brain detoxifies. Shortchanging our sleep affects our health and well-being. And the problem is that, in this world that we live in, there's always one more thing to check, one more link to open, article to read, or Netflix show to binge watch. The CEO of Netflix is actually quoted as saying that Netflix competes with their customers’ time with YouTube, Snapchat, and sleep. So, they fully understand that we are sacrificing our sleep to binge watch that extra episode.

Our bodies are exquisite machines tied to the most powerful organ we have, which is our minds. And so, what we see, and read, and share on our phones most often stimulates our sympathetic nervous system and puts us into fight-flight-freeze response.

We needed this ancient response to keep us out of danger, like when a tiger was chasing us, but now this pathway is being stimulated with our chronic stress lifestyle. And this is manifesting in physical symptoms that people will come to their physicians with, such as their heart racing, or shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, headaches, aches and pains.

And people don't tend to link the body and the mind. They don't understand this link, that what we take in through our minds actually has an impact on our physical bodies and our health.

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Flanagan: Social media and other technology has been a bit of a lifeline to help connect people with their family and friends, and with work, but there's obviously positives and negatives about that as well. What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Soni: We are, as human beings, social animals. We need face to face interactions in order to function. And COVID has put an unprecedented strain on our ability to connect with others. Many people are now working from home and limiting their ventures to going grocery shopping for essential items.

So, these online platforms have become our lifeline to this need that we have to connect with other people. Zoom and other online meeting platforms are being used to conduct business meetings, as well as online school, and people are even using these platforms to have social gatherings.

There's a lot more connecting via our technology—and it's great, we need this interaction—but the negatives are that people are reporting that they feel like they're constantly on call to their technology. So, they're working harder than ever, where prior when somebody actually went to a physical office to do their job, there would be time to travel from a meeting room to another, or to travel from home to work. And now, the next meeting starts minutes after the previous meeting. People aren't getting breaks to stretch and clear their mind, or look out the window, pet their dog, or get out in the sun.

And the line between work and home has blurred. People are having a hard time switching off, as their workday never seems to end. There's not really this defined time anymore—it's like one day is another Groundhog Day, of the sameness. And so, we're constantly finding ourselves on our phones, checking email, even during the hours when we normally would have, kind of, been in downtime with our families.

There's this added pressure on parents who are trying to work as if they don't have kids and homeschool as if they don't work. And this is a lot of stress to be under. And if we aren't careful, we can crowd out our life of complete balance.

So, taking time to be with our families, to be with our pets, to exercise, to get downtime where we literally have to put our phone in another room of our home in order to create the space around us to feel the rest of our lives and engage with our senses. 

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Flanagan: Do you have any tips for combating Zoom fatigue? 

Dr. Soni: Yes, that's a great question. Zoom, while it's useful because we can see people's faces, video chat is hard. You can't pick up body language, nonverbal body language, and we find it hard to concentrate. We're aware that we're being watched all the time, and this is mentally fatiguing to people. 

Even virtual happy hours after work that people use to connect socially can be tiring because they feel like they're still on, they never get this chance to be off, and constantly looking at a camera is draining. 

In normal meetings, we don't stare at our colleagues’ faces all day. So, doing this and staring at a camera, staring at a picture of ourselves, all of this is very draining to people. 

Also, people often try to multitask, so they're listening to the Zoom call while replying to an email and checking their social media feed. And we think we're being efficient when we do this, but multitasking requires different parts of our brain to switch on and off. And this causes a loss of 40% of our productivity.  

So, one tip would be to put your phone and other tasks away and just stay present to the meeting you're at. You'll remember more from the meeting, you'll perform better at each individual task, and you'll find yourself less tired.

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Dr. Soni: Our brains are constantly processing visual stimuli. So, a meeting where you have five people on Zoom means that you're in five different people's rooms at the same time— you're scanning their bookshelves, you're looking at the background—that's a lot for our brains to take in.  

So, one tip would be to try to have everybody just keep their background neutral, or put in those, those fake backgrounds like beach scenes that are relaxing. As well, video calls are intimate and they can feel invasive to people if they don't know each other well, so consider switching to email or just a phone call where there isn't a video aspect to it. 

Build in breaks. So, instead of scheduling 30, and 60-minute meetings, schedule 25 and 15-minute meetings, and use the time in between to engage your senses and ground yourself—connect with your family, pet the dog, go for a short walk, get a glass of water, do a stretch, meditate, breathe. You'll arrive at your next meeting more able to be present and listen. 

And we often find that people do these—the social Zoom meetings— out of a sense of obligation, and this robs us of this downtime that our brains need. We should be making these social happy hours and things virtual opt-in, recognizing that people need time away from their screens, especially introverts who find face to face interactions draining. 

The suggestion I would have is to give yourself some self-compassion. Because, I think that we are often really hard on ourselves at not being able to be perfect at every role that we have, whether it's to work at the job that we have, or to be a parent, to be a friend, to be the child of an older adult parent who might be needing more help right now. 

Those are a lot of roles that we're playing. The biggest thing we can do for ourselves is have some compassion and try to take breaks and ask for help. Because sometimes we don't realize how much we're struggling until we find ourselves having physical symptoms like not being able to sleep.

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Flanagan: How do you recommend that people take care of their mental health while using social media? 

Dr. Soni: We need to remember that the iPhone was only invented in 2007. And in 13 short years, the sands literally shifted under our feet. We used to have different lives—we had a work life, we had our friend life, and then we had family life—and now all of it kind of blurs into one via our phones, and we feel like we're constantly on call to our technology. And there are things that we can do to help mitigate that. 

So, when you interact with your social media, instead of just lurking and scrolling, post to interact, share information, or interact with platforms where you're contributing in some way other than just this wanting to be like this kind of narcissistic world that we can easily be pulled into.  

Just bringing awareness to the fact that sites are curated, and that they're not reality, helps us understand that we don't have to succumb to this feeling of not measuring up. Because what we see on our phones really isn't the truth, it's just somebody who's taken the time to make a picture look better. 

Take technology breaks. Our brains have this thing called neuroplasticity; they're constantly remodelling themselves. And there's a principle that says that neurons that fire together wire together. So, the things that we do most often become the deepest grooves in our brain. With our technology, we're at very real danger of wiring our brains to attending to very short bursts of information, constantly changing between screens. 

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Dr. Soni: The saying that people used to say, that no one lies on their deathbed and wishes that they’d spent more time at work. In the information age, I think, we're at very real risk of that phrase being that no one's going to wish that they'd spent more time on their iPhone. 

And that we maybe need to step up, before we get to our deathbed, and check and see, are we living our life in real ways with our families and our friends? Or do we have a camera roll full of selfies and lots of likes on our Facebook, but we're not having these meaningful connections with our family and friends? And if that's happening, to step back and really reevaluate our relationship with our tech.

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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health.

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