How new technologies are affecting the mental health of expats
Our experiences of living abroad have radically changed with new technologies. New forms of communication have emerged, thanks to the rise of the Internet and messaging applications. They allow us to connect to a wider world outside of our immediate environment and offer a multitude of possibilities for expatriates, both at a relational and professional level. Progress in terms of access to information and communication is, however, associated with an increase in anxiety induced by this same technological development. “Technostress” and “social media blues” are impacting everyone, and more specifically people who have chosen to live in another country.
A distance and a departure charged with ambiguity
Thanks to social networks and communication software it has become possible to stay in constant contact with family and friends. Physical distances no longer means losing touch with one's social and family environment. We can continue to attend live events taking place miles away from us. We can exchange photos and videos, and even play online, regardless of where we live. Living abroad no longer means being absent and excluded from family and friends. The expatriate remains reachable and available to communicate via mail, texting, videocalls, sometimes even more so than when they were living in proximity to each other.
If separation between the near and far has become blurred with the rise of the Internet, the one that dissociates private and public spaces has become just as porous. The external world has penetrated the private world, and the intimate can now be exposed to everyone. Before even settling in a new country, it is now possible to learn about its culture and to establish first contacts with the locals. It is now easy to share with everyone aspects of daily life and international experiences through “posts” and blogs. The exploration of one’s future home can be anticipated upstream, the place left no longer corresponds to a lost place, and the new living environment is easily shared with those who are not there.
Virtual reality in the professional world
Professional activities are also impacted by remote work. Virtual jobs are very popular with nomadic communities, with a greater boom since the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They allow flexible and adaptable logistics, regardless of a defined geographical location, requiring above all a good internet connection. Meetings are now easily conducted virtually, with speakers possibly scattered all around the world. Even recruitment no longer necessarily requires the physical presence of applicants, which facilitates international job searches. But the professional world interfering with the intimate and private sphere increases the difficulty of separating work time and leisure time, which makes work commitments impinge into the private sphere, creating tensions and diffusing boundaries.
The emergence of the "metaverse" and immersive technologies allowing several participants scattered in different regions of the world to be simultaneously present in a virtual space, puts in question the need for expatriation at all. The dematerialization of the professional space certainly allows for savings and flexibility, but it may interfere even more with employees’ personal space if they are stuck in teleworking, limiting their real social interactions and increasing isolation. It also increases the risk of cyberbullying and computer viruses. The “2022 Expat Communication barometer” survey raised a relevant question regarding the interest of expatriation since virtual work has become so popular. The survey results conveyed that a strong majority of expats still believed the benefits of living abroad mostly outweighed the convenience afforded by the expansion of the virtual workspace.
Despite new technologies benefits, a feeling of inadequacy with the digital world is emerging at the same time, and not only for older generations who sometimes feel overwhelmed, even excluded by it. The technostress term appeared in the 80s to define the anxiety caused by the inability to cope with new computer technologies. Technostress is caused by techno-overload, techno-invasion, techno-complexity, techno-insecurity, and techno-uncertainty. Techno-overload comes from the increasingly pressure of computerized tools in our daily lives. Techno-invasion is linked to the obligation to constantly adapt and be available, whether we like it or not. Techno-complexity arises from the pressure to keep-up with novelties and updates. Techno-insecurity arises from doubts about our abilities to adapt to the increasing technical requirements. Finally, techno-uncertainty reflects the fear of the unknown regarding future technological progress. In addition to computer skills requirements, the inability to differentiate the true from the false in the content of the messages, as well as the flood of information received daily, further fuel stress and anxiety.
The illusion of being everywhere at once
Although the digital world makes it possible to maintain contacts both here and there, it also feed the fantasy of simultaneity. The risk of living in different time zones can quickly become exhausting for expats and can hamper sleep quality. Overconsumption of social networks risks over-engaging people in the digital world instead of allowing them to invest in their new living physical reality. Discovering a new country can be scary. Dealing with linguistic awkwardness and difficulties in understanding a new culture and a new language can be discouraging and frustrating. Getting used to new customs, new ways of doing and being can be exhausting. But maintaining the illusion of control over one's daily life, even digital, can hinder social integration and sabotage a migratory experience that offers the potential for personal development and resilience.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out); the anxiety of missing something important, and "doom scrolling", this way of scrolling on the screen indefinitely in the hope of finding enticing information, can also have harmful effects on mental health, activating the production of stress hormones. Alerts and notifications from social media also stimulate the brain while exhausting it, providing dopamine boosts that are both pleasurable and frustrating, stirring an insatiable drive for excitement.
Social media blues
The massive use of social networking platforms has become a medium for socialization, yet a gap can arise between those who post and those who watch. The images presented, often idealized, can induce pride and pleasure for those who expose themselves, admiration, and envy in those who observe. A feeling of emptiness, incompleteness, loss of meaning, even despair can arise from the glitter of a publication full of glamour, contrasting with the ordinariness of real life. Expatriates publishing images of breathtaking landscapes, testifying of picturesque and extraordinary local lives, can distance themselves from the more complex reality of their experience, exposing it only in a partial way. As a result, potential life crises (loss of job, illness, bereavement, separations, etc.) can cause shame, loneliness, and feelings of failure, and may not be portrayed as much in the social media sphere.
How to fight technostress?
In order not to get lost in an excess of virtual presence, several behaviors are to be valued. First, it is important to limit excessive use of cell phone and social networks. For example, removing the phone from the bedroom at night, not checking emails at the dinner table, or removing sound alerts from applications, allow to maintain chosen unavailability and offline deliberate times. Secondly, favoring activities outside from home, whether to discover new surroundings or to build local real social interactions, allow to activate all the senses and not just the visual ones used during screen time. Even at home, getting involved in creative and/or manual activities allows one to use their imagination experientially. Finally, asking and questioning the place given to technological tools in our daily lives makes it possible to differentiate between positive technology that makes life easier, and alienating technology that ultimately turns out to be harmful to our mental health.
Magdalena Zilveti Manasson & Josee Graybill