Amy Orben wanted to answer a very modern question: How do digital connections compare with other forms of connection? 

It’s the kind of thing only a wonky, hyperanalytic person would think to ask. Orben is that person. She received a master’s in natural science from the University of Cambridge, and then went to the University of Oxford for a doctorate in experimental psychology. This is a woman who knows how to quantify the world around her and then navigate the numbers. 

In 2017, she needed a compelling thesis project related to how digital technologies impact social connections. At the time, the world was still having a big panic about social media’s impact on young people’s mental health. Orben thought this was the perfect opportunity. She could investigate these big, important subjects that were grabbing headlines around the world, and hopefully come away with insights that could help improve lives. “It felt so urgent,” she told me. “It felt like every minute mattered.”

For the next few years, this is what she devoted her attention to. Eventually she thought it would be fun to kick her paper off with a historical anecdote — something that contextualized the danger of social media. She went to the library and came across a 1941 article in The Journal of Pediatrics, which warned about the dangers of radio. 

“The average child radio addict starts lapping up his fascinating crime at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and continues for much of the time until sent to bed,” wrote the author, a doctor named Mary Preston. “The spoiled children listen until around 10 o’clock; the less indulged until around 9 o’clock.”

The report concluded that more than half of children had become addicted to radio dramas. 

Orben was stunned. “It felt like it was exactly the same conversation I’ve been having for three years — just, you know, eighty years before,” she said. 

She’d been investigating how social media impacts children’s mental health, thinking it was an original question about technological change. Now she knew it was actually an unoriginal question that’s posed about any technological change. Was she just part of a cycle that repeated itself over and over? Orben started looking back at her research — and all the other studies she’d found on social media — but now with this new lens. She re-analyzed the data from past studies — studies that had gotten a lot of attention over the years, and that had been used as the foundation for many books and articles and political hand-wringing. The results were alarmingly clear.

“The research was flawed,” she said. “They didn’t really tell us a lot about whether there’s a causal impact of social media on depression. We’re all talking about correlations — and they’re very, very small.” 

Panic vs. Data

After running the numbers on this deeper and more sophisticated analysis, Orben was able to compare how different activities relate to well-being, as a way to understand whether social media is really having a large and important impact. In actuality, technology alone has an insubstantial effect on young people’s psychological well-being. Scientific American succinctly summed up her results: “Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.” Eating potatoes! 

Many other studies have since reached similar conclusions. Soon Orben got to wondering: Why did this misunderstanding happen at all?

In answering that question, she came up with a four-step theory she calls the Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics. Sisyphus: He’s the guy from Greek mythology who was doomed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder roll back down, and then have to do it repeatedly for eternity. You can see why this makes for a tidy metaphor.

Step 1: Something seems different

A new technology is introduced, and its adoption starts to change the behavior of people seen as vulnerable, like children. Then that change becomes linked to whatever large, abstract concern is already floating around in society. 

Step 2: Politicians get involved

Politicians love a good moral panic, because they make complex problems appear simple. Nobody wants to address the structural inequality that may be causing it — that requires blaming voters, and examining a politicians’ own policies, and then making difficult and lasting change.

Step 3: Scientists slam the gas

Science relies heavily upon grants, which has very real consequences over what kind of science gets done, because researchers begin lining up to study whichever subjects are in favor. And politicians do want answers now. So researchers try to speed up their work. They tweet and talk to journalists and design studies that can move quickly.

Step 4: The low-information free-for-all

Once researchers release the results of their time-consuming studies, the media reports on them. Then politicians start acting on them. And then there’s chaos.

How to Break the Cycle of Technology Panics

Instead of being reactive, science should be proactive. If researchers need five years to truly begin understanding something, then that five-year process shouldn’t start while everyone’s all hyped up and politicians are demanding answers. It should start before anyone cares. 

“If we know that a new panic is coming in maybe five or ten years,” Orben told me, “then what we should be doing now is putting our feelers out, and trying to figure out what that might be, and start collecting data.” 

Orben isn’t saying that her peers must do better. She’s instead saying that her peers must recognize their weaknesses. In effect, she’s saying that she believes in the scientific process — but that, because it is slow and messy, the people who participate in it should factor those downsides into their work.

We can and should apply this to ourselves as well. We need a situational awareness of ourselves — a recognition of how we, as individuals and as groups, react negatively to new things. What did we once fear, that we now love? What did we learn in the process? Then we can build that knowledge into our actions.

It’s time to keep a record. The next time you surprise yourself by loving something you thought you’d hate, write it down. Memorialize it in a notebook, or on a Word doc, or just an email to yourself. It doesn’t matter. Describe why you didn’t want to do this thing, and then what happened after you did it, and how you feel now. Then store that piece of writing somewhere that you can easily find — because one day, I guarantee, the boulder you just rolled up a hill will roll back down, and you’ll be at the bottom, feeling lazy and defeated, and you will not want to push it back up. That’s when you need the reminder that you’ve been there before — but that there are great things on the other side of these feelings. All you need to do is say yes.

That’s when you break the Sisyphean Cycle. And you can begin to focus on what’s next.

This is an excerpt from Build for Tomorrow by Jason Feifer (Harmony Books, September 2022).