Guest post by Patrick Bailey

Governments have done a modest job at ensuring modern technology is applied to making the physical world a safer place. Laws which account for physical safety evolve relatively quickly and pressure companies to apply the latest safety standards to structures, transportation technologies and the like.

Newer technologies such as wearable tech monitor our blood pressure and heart rate, which helps detect early warning signs of a medical emergency. However, the possibility to sell patient health information gathered from wearable tech remains a grave concern amongst citizens. Do governments have the responsibility to address these invasions of privacy? Many citizens would agree they do.

How has Modern Technology Helped Mental Health?

Modern technology has profoundly increased our knowledge of both the causes and treatments surrounding mental illness. The free dissemination of this information over the internet has also helped many people in need seek out vital resources about mental health and treatment options. However, government oversight is needed to help curb the spread of false information, especially regarding important issues such as mental health, lest we risk severe health consequences for the population.

How Should Online Communication Be Regulated?

Before modern technology, we could not have envisioned someone from Bosnia regularly communicating with someone from Australia. Now, these interactions happen every day at increasing rates, and the exchange of culture and information has never been more rapid.

This can lead to problems. Digital communication often times leads to misunderstandings due to a severe lack of body language and voice tone. In fact, 93% of communication is said to be nonverbal, with 55% of communication conveyed through body language and 38% through voice tone. This means only 7% of communication is what’s actually being said. Factor in cultural differences and language barriers and it becomes extraordinarily difficult for people to effectively communicate online.

The lack of body language has actually been cited as a major reason for miscommunications online, many of which lead to exceptionally aggressive and hateful speech toward one another. Most of this negative communication could likely be mitigated with a simple face-to-face conversation that would facilitate mutual understanding and a more constructive interaction.

Moreover, governments attempts to create laws which govern such online communication but struggle to apply archaic laws to 21st-century technologies. What exactly is hate speech? What is covered under the Second Amendment in the US? What is considered a threat? Governments must now take into account context, location, and intent when applying laws to online communication.

Should Governments Make Laws Around Social Media Usage?

As it is the job of governments to care for the safety and health of its citizens, laws surrounding social media usage are needed now more than ever. The University of Pittsburgh recently published a study that found people who spend more time on social media are often more depressed than people who spend less. How can this be? One reason could be that people have shifted their social lives from in person to online. Human beings are simply not made to derive the same enjoyment and sense of fulfillment from online interactions as we are from interactions in real life. Sharon Farber, Ph.D. writes that “Being touched and touching someone else are fundamental modes of human interaction,” and those substituting their real-life interactions with online interactions are missing the social and emotional fulfillment that has been fundamental to the survival of the human species.

Not only is social media creating unhappy citizens, but these companies profit off users by selling advertising and their data. Laws are needed to address the egregious overreach by companies basing their business models off unhappy users.

Information Overload

Another challenge modern technology poses to our mental health is information overload. Information overload happens when humans simply absorb too much information, far more than our brains are not designed to handle. Information overload is on Netflix, on billboards, on smartphones, and on the radio. Advertising contributes extensively to information overload, and with its exceptionally manipulative and aggressive behavior, advertising is the first thing that laws should address.

In fact, information overload can actually make citizens dumber. If information overload is present, our cognitive function begins to decline, along with productivity and our ability to concentrate. When we’re overloaded we feel tired and, instead of attacking our work or life responsibilities head-on, we reach for menial tasks such as checking e-mails and voicemails, refilling the water jug at work, mowing the yard, anything to let our minds rest and digest the vast amount of information we’re trying to force-feed it.

The Effects Of Modern Technology And Family Health

While modern technology has the potential to bring families closer together, it also carries the potential to pull them apart. Brian McDaniels recently authored a study that showed children of parents who pull out electronics during family time are more predisposed to misbehaving. Children sense when they’re being neglected, and they often lash out or misbehave to try to recapture the attention of their parents. But for parents and children alike, modern technology makes it easier than ever to “check out.” So instead of watching their child’s soccer game, many parents spend their time on social media. Children notice this, and they can grow resentful and feel detached from their parents for exhibiting this behavior.

Modern Technology Can Make Us Less Happy

The University of Pittsburgh’s study on social media users and happiness may offer more than meets the eye. Many of us have heard, “happiness is expectations minus reality,” and “comparison is the thief of joy.” Social media users selectively curate their profiles and choose what they show the world. If you are a heavy social media user and see only the highlights of others’ lives without hearing about the lows, you cannot help but believe yourself to be living a miserably boring life compared to the rest of the population, even though this is often not the case.

Modern technology brings with it the power to change society for good and for ill. 21st-century governments have the challenge and the responsibility to use all available knowledge to enact laws that protect their citizens from mental health problems resulting from modern technology usage.