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Technology and Mental Health

Technology has come a long way since humans used the first stone tools over 3.4 million years ago. The first computer was invented in the 1800’s by Charles Babbage with the first modern computer produced in the 20th century. The internet was launched in the 1980’s which facilitated the arrival of social media in the late 90’s. Today around 3.8 billion people worldwide are active social media users. Using today’s technology, we can live our lives completely online without the need to interract with others or leave the house. We can go to school, college or work, order food and groceries and even find love online. However just because we can doesn’t mean we should. In recent years, concerns have been growing around the negative impact of social media and technology on mental health particularly among young people. If you google social media, technology and mental health you will find an endless list of media and scientific articles titled “social media is bad for mental health” and “technology is ruining a generation”. But are these claims true?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that around 264 million people worldwide are suffering from depression. Some of the symptoms of depression include low mood, feelings of helplessness and low motivation. Depression affects many areas of life and can lead to problems such as absenteeism from work, broken relationships and unhealthy alcohol use. Between the years 2005 and 2017, research studies highlighted an increase of 52% in the prevalence of depression among teenagers. Social media and technology are regularly blamed for the increase in rates of depression as well as other mental illnesses. Many theories have been presented to try and explain the impact of social media and technology on mental health. One theory is that spending more time looking at screens means less time is spent doing important activities such as socialising or sleeping. In other words the impact of screen time has an indirect negative impact on mental health. Another theory argues that social media exposes individuals to an excessive amount of negative images and environments such as violence or cyberbullying. Social media can also fuel feelings of inadequacy and unfair comparisons which may also contribute to symptoms of depression.

However research studies investigating the effects of social media and technology on mental health have not been without their flaws. Many studies have focused only on the short term effects of usage while studies looking at the long term effects have been few and far between. One recent analysis found the negative effects of screen time (including social media) on mental health to be about as bad as eating potatoes. Research findings have also been misconstrued. While studies may declare that depression is associated with higher levels of social media use that that does not mean social media usage causes depression. Those who are depressed tend to use social media more frequently. Picture this, you are having a bad day, you go on social media, post a picture, receive some likes and comments and start to feel a little bit better. This will encourage you to use social media again the next time you feel down. It seems the relationship between our mental health and social media and technology is more complex than it appears and may in fact be beneficial.

Computer scientists have uncovered ways to use social media and technology to identify mental illness. By studying behaviour and language used online, scientists can successfully identify symptoms of depression and anxiety along with other mental illnesses. The technology can also rate the severity of these symptoms. For example, Facebook is now using AI to help identify those with severe mental distress and is providing resources to help. Technology can also be used to alleviate symptoms without having to seek help in-person. Counselling and psychotherapy sessions are now conducted online and self-help support is provided via a variety of apps. For those experiencing social anxiety, social media has also been shown to be beneficial. Social anxiety is characterised by an intense fear of judgement or scrutiny by other people. This fear can make it difficult for people to socialise in person with others which can lead to feelings of loneliness. Social media may alleviate these feelings by helping those with social anxiety to connect with other people online which can also help to reduce social isolation. It seems we can use social media and technology in a variety of ways to better our lives.

Concerns around frequency of social media and screen usage are frequently cited so how much is too much? If your usage is causing you distress and/or impacting your day to day functioning then it’s time to cut back immediately. In most cases, setting limits around usage is more effective than complete abstinence. A limit of around 30 minutes of social media use has been shown to be beneficial for reducing feelings of loneliness and depression while allowing plenty of time for other activities. However excessive users may need to take a complete break for a week or so. Everyone is different so it’s worth determining what level of usage works for you. You can also use technology to improve your mental health and wellbeing. Talking to a therapist from the comfort of your own home can be the boost you need to get going. If you don’t fancy talking to a therapist directly why not try one of the apps available? From cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to mindfulness to meditation, there are plenty of mental health and wellbeing boosting apps available to download to your smartphone or tablet.

Despite what popular media would like us to think, the evidence for the effects of social media and technology on our mental health is mixed at best. There appears to be both benefits and costs associated with usage. It is time to do away with alarmist headlines, improve our research and take a more balanced view of mental health, social media and technology.

by Dr Aoife Quinn

Dean of Faculty of Psychology