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Director of Psychology Theresa McKenna

METRO photo

By Aidan Johnson

The world has drastically changed in the recent decades, with one of the leading transformations being the rapid evolution of technology. In a short span of time, smartphones and social media have become seemingly permanent fixtures in society. However, this new technology brings about new challenges, such as anxiety heightened by prolonged interactions on social media and cellphone use.

Theresa McKenna, clinical health psychologist and director of Psychology Services at St. Charles Hospital. Photo courtesy of St. Charles Hospital

Theresa McKenna, clinical health psychologist and director of Psychology Services at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, discussed how social media and the overuse of cellphones can lead to increased anxiety, especially in adolescents and teens — and how to combat these feelings, stressing that a more nuanced approach is often necessary.

Curing emotions brought about by use of technology is not as simple as painting social media as purely evil, as it can allow people to easily connect with others, and even build groups and communities around shared hobbies.

However, McKenna explained, there are still plenty of issues that social media can create.

“If you’re looking at what your friends are doing, especially with younger people … you might have gotten wind that [there was] a party,” she said, describing how if an adolescent didn’t previously know about that, seeing pictures of it online, along with being able to know who was there can create a feeling of being left out, which can increase the risk of depression, isolationism and anxiety.

This also contributes to a problem of a lack of boundary setting for oneself with the amount of social media usage, along with the amount of information shared.

“They know where their friends are, they could track them down easily. It’s like there’s no unspoken time,” McKenna said.

“You wouldn’t want all of your time taken up with one person in person either, because that wouldn’t be healthy. You don’t want that time taken up with social media so frequently,” she added.

However, screen time usage has also been made more complicated by the global pandemic. While a sense of normalcy has returned, with many COVID-19 era policies and mandates ending, there has still been a lingering shift to remote work. 

In a March 2023 Pew Research Center survey, around 35% of workers who had jobs that had the ability to be done remotely were done so full time, as opposed to just 7% before the pandemic.

“For younger people, especially people coming into working age, they’re losing some of that ability to have mentorship [or] even just to meet people different than themselves in a lot of ways, because they’re not in a work environment,” McKenna indicated.

She said that people struggling with overuse of cellphones try to engage in a “digital detox,” in which they start to use cellphones and other smart technology less. One of the biggest steps that she suggested was to keep smartphones away from the bedroom.

In talking to one patient, McKenna said it was admitted that even though the person goes to bed at 10 p.m., the phone is used for another two hours.

“The stimulation that comes from playing a video game before you go to bed causes an irritable type of sleep, so even if you fall asleep easily, it’s not a good type of sleep,” McKenna added.

Instead of being on a smart device before going to bed, she stated that reading or doing activities such as crossword puzzles would be a better alternative. In lieu of using a phone as an alarm clock, buying a cheap alarm clock would do the trick

Additionally, McKenna suggested downloading meditation apps on the smartphone such as Calm. There are also special wellness apps for those in specific communities, such as Chill Drills, a free mindfulness app released by the Department of Defense for the military community.

Smartphone overuse does not just affect adolescents and teens, which is why McKenna stressed the importance of parents and adults to model good phone usage.

While tech advances have certainly made some aspects of life easier, such as the abundance of information and the ability to connect with those far away, it is important to be mindful of how much a cellphone is being used on a daily basis. While it isn’t necessary to completely cut it out of everyday life, it is imperative to set boundaries and have a good balance between screen time and other activities.