Today, consumers are using technology in nearly every aspect of life. According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of U.S. teens use a smartphone and 45 percent of those users say they are online “almost constantly.” As the use of technology becomes ever more pervasive, some are questioning the link between technology and mental health. Those in clinical mental health and school counseling programs are studying and combating the potential impacts of this link.
Technology use is having a profound impact on how people not only live their lives, but also how they feel about themselves. Mental health that is influenced by technology is changing the narrative not only for children and teens, but for young adults and adults as well.
Mental Health in Children, Teens and Young Adults
According to a study published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry, “roughly half of all lifetime mental disorders in most studies start in the mid-teens and three-fourths in the mid-20s.” The study notes that the initial onset of the mental health disorder “usually occurs in childhood or adolescence” but treatment doesn’t follow until later in life. This creates a vulnerable gap between onset and treatment.
The time of this vulnerability is especially dangerous for children, teens and young adults because they develop many lifelong habits during this stage.
Among these habits is technology use. It is an ever-present part of life for most young people. It follows then, that the correlation between technology and mental health is a serious matter. For example, a study in Adolescent Research Review found a “degree of correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms in young people.” Another study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found a “positive association between social media and anxiety.”
Mental Health in Adults
Young people aren’t the only ones at risk. Adults are also feeling the impact of technology. According to an article in Medical News Today — “48 percent of Millennials, 37 percent of Gen Xers, 22 percent of Boomers and 15 percent of Matures” — are worried about the detrimental effect of technology on health. For example, according to the same Medical News Today article, social media use has been shown to negatively influence well-being and satisfaction, with feelings of unhappiness and isolation possibly increasing the risk of developing depression and loneliness.
Screen Time versus Mental Health
According to Children’s Health, teens who use technology for more than an hour each day are “more likely to report feeling depressed, lonely or anxious.” That one-hour benchmark represents an extremely low threshold. A study by Common Sense Media has found that the typical American teen (13 to 18 years old) spends an average of nine hours per day using technology, with tweens (eight to 12 years old) spending six hours. That means the majority of younger people (12-18 years old) spend six to nine times more time with technology than is required to begin feeling negative mental health symptoms.
The Online-Offline Balance
As technology advances and everyday use becomes an ever more integrated part of modern life, it is vital for both children and adults to maintain a balance between screen time and face-to-face interactions. Following are some tips to help maintain this balance and better ensure a positive relationship between technology and mental health.
Be a role model.
Children watch what adults do. When around children, be sure to set a good example by using technology responsibly. Limit its overall use, especially in social group settings. Use technology in a way that you would want children to emulate.
Reward good habits early on.
Establish rules and acknowledge good technology behavior. Limit the amount of time that can be spent online. Specify the types and number of sites that may be visited and the devices that may be used. This helps lay the groundwork for good technology habits from the outset.
Make media use a group activity.
Many mental health problems, such as isolation and depression, may stem from the loneliness that comes from using technology by one’s self. To avoid this and start positive habits, make an effort to use tech together as a family or with friends. For example, using technology that requires teamwork or multi-person participation is a great way to bring people together in game settings.
For Young Adults and Adults
Set tech-free times.
A simple way to reduce daily tech use is to schedule tech-free times. The goal is not to eliminate the use of technology, but to avoid the “constant checker syndrome.” This is the compulsion to always engage technology for fear of missing out on something. Consider silencing, engaging airplane mode or turning off the phone during work and important social-building moments like dinner with loved ones or during group activities.
Use apps to help.
If maintaining tech-free times is difficult, there are apps available to help. Identify the technology usage that commands the most time and download an appropriate app to help minimize that activity. Here are three apps to start with:
- IFTTT – offers options to save time checking phone messages or reducing social media use
- Quality Time – counts social media logins then notifies when a user hits their pre-set login limit
- Checky – counts how many times a user unlocks their phone
Help with Mental Health
The relationship between technology and mental health is a serious matter. The overuse of technology can have a detrimental effect on children and adults. An important aspect to remember, however, is that there are professionals who can help. For those interested in helping others live better lives in balance with technology, earning a degree, such as a master’s in clinical mental health counseling or school counseling from Wake Forest University, may be an excellent place to start.