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The City of Melbourne is ranked number one as the most liveable city in the world, but is our thriving, lively city diminishing into an anti-social, anxiety-ridden one? Or do we all just need time to ourselves, to unwind and reflect in the morning and take in everything around us?

Many Melbournians’ morning commutes consist of transforming into a thin sardine on the train, mastering the art of averting eye contact with the person adjacent to you and catching up on emails and the daily news we have become too busy to read.

According to a 2013 OECD report, Australia is the second-biggest consumer of antidepressants in the OECD, second only to Iceland.
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Even more staggering is that ‘between 2000 and 2011, antidepressant use in Australia’ has increased by ‘95.3 per cent’, no doubt because of the increase in technology. It is not just the use of technology on public transport that has shut down our need for socialisation, but the use in general that has created this looming anxiety over the city.

This anxiety manifests itself in several ways – consider you are running ten minutes late to an important meeting or lecture. Stumbling into an empty lift, you frantically press the ‘close door’ button. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a stranger, gasping for air and running for that same elevator. Do you hold the door open for them? Probably not! Who wants to awkwardly hold eye contact with another stranger? Time alone for that 20 seconds, where you don’t have to whip out your mobile phone in order to pretend you are reading that article on ‘How To Eat Healthily and Lose Belly Fat.

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A pay phone at Richmond Railway Station urges commuters to ‘Reconnect’ – it begs the question – do people feel the need to connect with others in person?

I recently found myself in a chance conversation with a woman on the train, who informed me that this is the third time she has ever taken public transport to work in twenty years. My first thought when she struck up this conversation with me was that this was strange. I had earphones nestled into my ears and clearly was not the least bit interested in socialising. My morning routine consisted of this numbing out each day, and she was, innocently, not a part of it.Then there’s the other argument – how I feel about my morning commute: It’s the only time I really get to myself. Between my part-time jobs and university, finding time to actually eat a meal and wash my hair is a luxury, let alone finding time to unwind by myself. So, are we anti-social commuters or simply people with basic Western world, humanist needs?

26-year-old graphic designer from Liverpool, UK, Elliott Pearson[2] prefers to ride his bike to work most days, as “Public transport is crowded. I find that there is a nervous energy when so many people try to get to the same place at the same time. I prefer to commute in the fresh air.” Many commuters are making this switch from public transport to driving or cycling in order to avoid the morning rush to the city – a trip that makes many feel uncomfortable and even trapped.

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Elliott Pearson, 26, cycles to and from work on a daily basis as he finds it more meditative than the “morning rush.”

 

Daniella Hendler, 19, a Marketing student at RMIT explains[3], “I don’t feel that need to reconnect with many of my online friends. Every aspect of a person’s life is posted on their social media platforms.”

 “I don’t feel that need to reconnect with many of my online friends. Every aspect of a person’s life is posted on their social media platforms.”

So is there a link between the rise of technology and increasing anxiety and depression levels? Alarmingly.

The City of Melbourne is becoming an anti-social one. My father, a 58-year-old lawyer, has worked in Richmond and the Melbourne CBD for over 34 years. I distinctly remember him arriving home one evening in disbelief. My father drives into work every day. This has always been routine. On this particular day, he caught a tram in the city to see a client. He was both bemused and shocked, in disbelief that every single person was fixed to his or her phones, as if the phone itself was life support!

I thought about what life would have been like 34 years ago, yet something didn’t seem right. Society doesn’t frown upon people who sit and read the paper in a public place – they are simply catching up on the news and are considered worldly and somewhat intellectual. Is there a stigma attached to those who vacuously stare at their screens during these long commutes? Are they hungry for information, incapable of living in the present, or conversing with complete strangers? What if they were simply reading an article online?

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The Western world is adapting to change and currently, much information is available online at the click of a button. Everything is instantaneous. Perhaps this is where increasing levels of anxiety may become apparent. We live in an instant gratification world and are becoming impatient and agitated beings with restless energy that manifests into a constant anxiety. Jessie Meleck,[4] a Psychology graduate and Psychopharmacology Honors Student believes it is “not a simple cause and effect relationship”. She says “by decreasing face to face contact, people could be so lonely [that] they could substitute their real relationships with online relationships.” There is “a huge gap in correlating the use of social media and the effect it has on mental health.” Social media is “moving too fast for scientific studies to keep up. We would only find out once longitudinal studies are conducted and finished.”

Pew Research Centers latest study in 2015[5] found that ‘frequent internet and social media users do not exhibit higher stress levels’ however that ‘it changes under certain circumstances when they become aware of stressful events in the lives of family and friends.’ They also reported that a way that people’s ‘use of digital technology can be linked to stress’ – that being those ‘whose use of digital technology is tied to higher levels of awareness of events in others’ lives.’

In the fifth annual National Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey[6], 53% of Australian teenagers surveyed said they used social networking sites for ‘fifteen minutes before sleeping each night.’

Furthermore, Australian Psychological Society (APS) clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller says, “more than half of all Australian teenagers (56%) are heavy social media users. They reported benefits including stronger relationships, more effective goal setting, ability to seek help through social media, as well as feeling part of a global community.”

19-year-old Health Blogger and Social Media Advisor Ellie Laffner[7] believes that there is a correlation between the rise of mental illness and the constant use of technology. She recounts personally how she becomes “very anxious” when she is not with her own phone and how there is “a danger in very young people starting early with social media and not “developing the tools to properly connect with people in person.” She does, however, see the benefits of this ‘global community’ that Fuller mentions.

Ellie has “connected with a lot of amazing people who I wouldn’t have if not for social media.” While she believes there is “a danger” in young people starting early with social media and “not developing the tools to properly connect with people in person, I’m glad I have those tools already. My social media is just a platform to meet more people.”

The question very few are asking is what is the purpose of such a huge online platform? The social media relationship is a one-dimensional platform. Since 80 percent of communication is body language and 20 percent is verbal communication, the relationships online are becoming one dimensional and therefore fabricated. They bear little or no resemblance to communication with a human being in real life. Could it be that this anxiety is due to the gap that is prevalent between the unreal virtual representations online that bears a huge discrepancy to the real, multidimensional human? Have we belittled ourselves in our modern world to be one-dimensional?

Mental illness and overuse of technology has infiltrated society and it is possible that in years to come, the generations to come will not exhibit the same social skills that we, the older generations, have acquired. There is, however, hope. Society is not deteriorating, it is merely adapting, and change is not as awful as the ‘millennials’ have made it out to be. We just need to find a balance – we need to be able to wind down– be it on the train amidst hundreds of strangers, or by ourselves in our inner selves. It’s the little things that we must try to keep alive – the gentle smiles as we pass a stranger, or holding open a door for someone. We must find a balance in order to give Melbourne the well-deserved title of ‘Most Liveable City.’ Let our time be known as ‘The Age of Adaption’ rather than the ‘the Age of Anxiety’, because I want the next generation to know that we stumbled, but were able to work our way back once more. We’re not a perfect species, but let the optimist in us all believe that one day we could be.

 

[1] ABC Website, September 2014, Bianca Nogrady ‘Mental Health Myths, are anti depressants overprescribed?’

[2] Face-to-face interview conducted in April 2016

[3] Phone interview conducted in April 2016

[4] Interview conducted via email in April 2016

[5] David Cohen, Study: Does Social Media Cause Stress? Social Times Website, published Jan 15th, 2015

[6] SBS Website, FOMO: Heavy social media use leading to depression among teens, published 8th November 2015

[7] Face-to-face interview conducted in April 2016

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