Social media, smart devices, and related technology have created unprecedented convenience while simultaneously creating a dichotomy for each one of us. We are navigating not one, but two worlds—one that is internal and one that is external.

I call this a “dual-world” paradigm. The external world exists outside of us—one that we use our senses to interact with. The stimuli that we encounter creates our reality, which we interpret as the story of our lives. The internal world is one that exists inside of us. It’s comprised of our brain, which houses emotion, past experiences, and consciousness—all working in concert to assign meaning to external stimuli, forming our reality. Our ideal state is when our dual-world paradigm is in balance.

The reality is that this paradigm is out of balance. Our modern lives have become so busy and overstimulated that we lose connection to our internal world, leaving us to rely almost solely on the external world to get cues about who we are. This can adversely affect social interactions, while increasing anxiety and reinforcing insecurities.

As a Professor of Practice in Management and Entrepreneurship at Lehigh University, I’ve witnessed this with students I interact with on a daily basis—all members of Generation Z, the demographic group after millennials who were born between 1995-2010. They are the first ubiquitously connected generation—they’ve never lived without smartphones, Wi-Fi, and social media. These technologies can act as a virtual form of “peer pressure.” Users are constantly bombarded by their network’s unending flow of updates, portraying their lives in the best possible sense, creating a skewed image of reality.

This has led Generation Z to live almost exclusively through external lenses. Friends and even strangers can become a projection of who they are, and can even make them feel worse about themselves due to the illusion that they just don’t quite measure up.

This imbalanced dual-world paradigm is exacting a toll that has important implications for higher education and, ultimately, business as a whole.

social apps on smartphone screen

The Links Between Social Media and Anxiety/Depression

Consider these two facts, culled from the Royal Society for Public Health’s landmark report, #StatusOfMind: Social media and young people's mental health and wellbeing:

  • 91 percent of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking
  • Rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen 70 percent in the past 25 years

Is there a connection? A growing body of research strongly suggests there is. The Royal Society for Public Health report found that four of the top five most popular social media platforms actually increase anxiety. In a survey conducted in 2017 of almost 1,500 young people (aged 14-24) from across the UK, Instagram was rated the most negative, followed by Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. Only YouTube was considered a net positive—and even that was by a very slim margin.

And the more that young people engage with social media, the more it feeds anxiety and depression. A study from San Diego State University found that “adolescents using social media sites every day were 13 percent more likely to report high levels of depressive symptoms than those using social media less often.” Another national study, by Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, found that teens and young adults who use seven to 11 different social media platforms were 3.1 times more likely to report higher levels of depressive symptoms and 3.3 times more likely to have high levels of anxiety than their peers who only used zero to two platforms.

What makes this even more interesting is that the social media pioneers who were influential in creating these platforms did so knowing that they were exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology” in building platforms that created a powerful “social validation feedback loop.” Those were the words of Sean Parker, an early investor and first president of Facebook, who publicly confessed last year that the inventors and creators “understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

The problem is very real and it’s likely to get worse, if ignored. But it also presents an opportunity to develop creative techniques to address the heightened anxiety and other effects of ubiquitous connectivity that we will see in the coming wave of students and future employees.

Internal Innovation Leads to External Revolution

As technology continues to disrupt industries and jobs, critical thinking, leadership, and creativity will be pivotal. Specifically, self-awareness, interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence, and adaptability will become essential. Generation Z’s increasing lack of awareness of their internal world is making it even more difficult for them to develop these vital skill-sets.

As an educator, I am constantly seeking techniques that help students find balance in their respective lives. In my senior Entrepreneurship capstone course, students “learn by doing”. No assigned textbooks or quizzes on what they read—they learn customer discovery by actually doing customer discovery. They relate articles from thought-leaders and then to their own respective experiences in a collaborative roundtable format.  

In an effort to create balance in students’ dual-world paradigm, they are encouraged to choose a habit that they follow throughout the duration of the semester. This includes everything from journaling and meditation, to exercise and daily expressions of gratitude. These habits help them to explore and better understand the emotional and cognitive skill-sets that will enable them to be successful regardless of their future endeavors.  

Students not only learn an entrepreneurial framework in the classroom, they learn a lot about themselves, including what they may or may not enjoy, and what their real strengths and weaknesses are. As one student recently stated: “the course has empowered students to stretch outside their comfort zones and reach new heights.”

This creates a positive dynamic and energy-level that transcends the classroom. Students are engaged, empowered, and develop confidence that manifests itself through their thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions, which help shape their reality in a meaningful way. Through these practices, students have begun to restore balance to their dual-world paradigm, filtering reality more through an internal lens, creating the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.

Imagine if we could repeat and scale this beyond curriculum and higher education. The opportunity to address this dual-world paradigm via the creation of new mediums, platforms, and techniques could very well be at the forefront of the next wave of transformational innovation and create the potential for a more meaningful life.

Joshua Ehrig

Joshua Ehrig

Joshua Ehrig is a professor of practice in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.