by Dr. Sonja Burrows, Instructional Designer, DLINQ

This month, we are writing to you about finding hope in hopeless times – no small feat in a world rife with war, struggle, polarization, disease and disarray. As we noted at the outset, this theme emerges from our own experiences of burnout and hopelessness, made all the more extreme when we think about how technology can perpetuate harm to ourselves and others.

It’s hard to talk about hopelessness without also talking about depression. Chances are either you or someone you know has experienced this mood disorder at some point in your life. According to the Mayo Clinic, depression causes “a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest… [that] affects how you feel, think and behave.” Symptoms of depression occur most or all of every day, and include feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, among many other symptoms.*

*If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please scroll to the end of this article for supportive resources.

What role does technology play in determining our mental health? While technology certainly cannot be wholly blamed for causing depression, many scholars have discovered that it plays an influential role, especially for young people. Of particular concern is social media dependency and  smartphone reliance and their negative impact on mental health, leading to increased rates of depression, self-harm and suicide particularly among teenagers.

By now, the role of social media and smartphone use on mental health is old news. The relationship between our emotional wellness and our use of these technologies is not new. It’s tempting to say to ourselves, Yeah yeah, I’ve heard all that already. Let’s move on. The problem is, we haven’t moved on. Most of us can count on one hand the number of people we know who have actually discontinued or decreased their use of social media or smartphones. The issue persists, regardless of our supposed awareness of it. Why? There are myriad reasons, not the least of which is, simply put, addiction.

According to the Addiction Center, social media addiction is a behavioral addiction that is defined by being “overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas.” And Psychology Today describes smartphone addiction or nomophobia as a fear of being without your smartphone leading to increased dependency and inability to discontinue its use.

It seems that simply being aware of the negative impacts of excessive use of social media, smartphones, and other technology is not enough to counteract their harmful effects on our psyches.

At this point, you may be scratching your head and wondering when we’ll get to the “possible futures” part of this discussion of hopelessness, depression, and technology addiction. When do we get to the hope, to the “better tomorrow” section? As we wrote at the outset of this year’s Detox, it can indeed be difficult to see alternate possibilities that activate our hope for the future and energize our work. And this is why I want to bring to your attention a well-known play theorist and professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania named Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015) who spent his lifetime attempting to discover the cultural significance of play in human life.

In his 1997 seminal book entitled the Ambiguity of Play, Sutton-Smith shared the following often-cited observation: “The opposite of play is depression.” He explains that this is because play involves “the willful belief in acting out one’s capacity for the future.” Austin Rode in Peer Mental Health notes that “game-play is literally the neurological opposite of depression” because when people play games, they are immediately and constantly focused on a goal which creates a sense of motivation and determination that causes their neurological reward pathways to light up. Furthermore, as scholar Lois Holtzman notes, play helps people to become a part of communities because through creatively imitating others, people imagine themselves to be competent members of communities before they even know how.

Could play help with depression? Could it activate our hope for the future and energize our work? By providing a means through which we can act out our capacity for the future, play creates in us a sense of hope, of community, and of belonging.

The National Institute of Play, founded by Dr. Stuart Brown, treats depression through play. Brown’s prescription for mental health is that there isn’t just one way to play, but rather that there are multiple player “types” for people to choose from: joker, kinesthete, explorer, competitor, director, collector, artist and storyteller. Learning to play – or finding a way to play that works best for each of us – requires thought and practice. But Brown notes that even if it’s been years since we adults were in a play state, we can get back to that joy. It only takes a little self-awareness and the willingness to try.

Finding hope in hopeless times is complicated; clearly there isn’t just one answer. Play may provide some help, perhaps in combination with other supports like therapy, medication, and reducing our use of technologies that can perpetuate harms to ourselves and others. Alternative futures may be imagined through play and we may find that play can bring joy that brings those alternate futures a little closer.

Take Action

  • Read and follow the three-step plan for rekindling the joy of play in your life from the National Institute for Play.
  • To decrease your use of your smartphone, create your own list of situations in which you commit to not using your phone.
  • Commit to a period of time during which you will significantly reduce the time you spend using social media.
  • Keep working on the imagination/hope journal mentioned in our first issue. Continue to write daily about hopes or visions for the future and what it will take to enact them.

Keep Reading

Resources for Helping with Depression

If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 in the U.S. or your local emergency number immediately. Also consider these options if you’re having suicidal thoughts:

    • Call your doctor or mental health professional.
    • Contact a suicide hotline.
      • In the U.S., call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or use the Lifeline Chat. Services are free and confidential.
      • U.S. veterans or service members who are in crisis can call 988 and then press “1” for the Veterans Crisis Line. Or text 838255. Or chat online.
      • The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the U.S. has a Spanish language phone line at 1-888-628-9454 (toll-free).
  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
  • Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.

If you have a loved one who is in danger of suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you think you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.