More and more of our lives and daily activities depend on some form of digital device or online interactions. Computers are now in nearly every single US household (over 90%), nearly 70% of the global population (4.8 billion) has at least some form of mobile computing device and around 40% of the people in the world (3.03 billion) are using some form of social-media. In fact there are now more mobile devices than people on Earth! Digital technologies now permeate almost every aspect of our lives and even our homes are becoming inundated with technology and “smart” devices as we enter the age of the Internet of Things (IoT). With so much technology around us in every aspect of our lives, are we better off as a result? Are we happier with all this technology and are we designing, choosing or using them in a manner which reduces their potential harmful effects, and increases their potential benefits for improved mental-health, psychological flourishing and even well-being?
“If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” ~ Omar N. Bradley
Concerns over the potential negative effects of digital technology are not new and began at least as far back as the early 80’s following the release of the widely popular game called Space Invaders. In 1982 researchers investigating the growing interest in video gaming technology reported 3 cases of ‘Space Invaders Obsession’ in the Journal of the American Medical Association. With personal computers everywhere, “smart” technologies showing up in our homes or strapped to our bodies, and the majority of us carrying around mobile devices and glued to social-media streams, our lives have now become inundated with digital technologies which is creating a growing concern over their potential negative impact on mental health and well-being.
“The society is getting addicted to technology, especially social media, quite like one gets addicted to cocaine or pot. And it all works through the neurochemical process of reward and punishment. And furthermore, when a whole world starts functioning driven by this petty instinctual process of reward and punishment, things in existence begin to get really messed up, like it has already started.” ~ Abhijit Kaskar
This growing concern over the impact of digital technology in our lives is reflected by the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting in 2014 that although the Internet and other digital technologies have “enormous benefits for societies”, our rapidly increasing use of these technologies “can also result in health consequences which are of concern from a public health perspective” (World Health Organization, 2014, p. 19). The World Economic Forum also indicated in its Global Risks 2018 report that “adverse consequences of technological advances” are one of the most significant risks faced by society today. Even the bible of psychological diagnosis — The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — in its 2013 fifth edition (DSM-5) notes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a condition warranting more research. Further evidence that our growing use of digital technologies may be creating new mental health issues came in 2018 when The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) of the World Health Organization, formally included “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health condition in the 11th edition (ICD-11). In other words, major global health organizations have started to raise warning flags around the potential mental health risks for individuals and society, associated with certain types of gaming, Internet use and social-media technologies.
“We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.” ~ Clay Shirky
Some of the biggest concerns around the potential mental-health risks associated with digital technologies are being raised around our obsessive use of smart-phones and social-media. Especially among children and teens where 95% have access to a smart-phone and nearly half (45%) report they are online “almost constantly”. With vulnerable groups like children and teens, there is growing evidence that some of these digital technologies have the potential to negatively impact sleep patterns, learning and attention as well as social, emotional and psychological functioning, including increased rates of depression. In one recently published study, they looked at developmental outcomes for children at age 5 who had access to digital devices or television. What they found was that increases in screen time were linked to worse developmental outcomes. The greater the screen time, the more types of screens used, the worse the developmental outcomes for children in this age group. There is also a disturbing statistic showing that teen depression, distress and suicidal tendency rates have doubled between the years 2005 and 2017 — roughly the same time frame of our exponential growth of smart-phones and social-media use. This has led some researchers to conclude that the rise in smart-phone and social-media use is a “significant factor” behind the doubling of teen depression rates, distress and suicidal tendencies during this period.
Many are now asking if there is there anything we can do about the negative effects of digital technologies, particularly with our most vulnerable children and teens? Cue the relatively new field of Positive Technology (or Positive Computing). Positive Technology is concerned with how to design, choose and use technology in a manner which not only minimizes their harmful potential, but maximizes their positive potential for improving the quality of our lives and well-being. In a way, Positive Technology is merely an extension of Positive Psychology which began with the work of Martin Seligman in 1998 and is concerned with the broad goals of understanding human strengths, virtues and exceptional states in order to promote these strengths to allow for individuals, communities and societies to flourish. Positive Psychology looks at the positive aspects of human functioning and behavior and tries to understand and promote the behaviors and practices that lead to happiness, well-being and flourishing in all aspects of life. When we apply the goals of positive psychology to our use of digital technologies, we have the new field of Positive Technology.
“Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.” ~ Sharon Salzberg
As an example of taking a positive psychology approach to digital technology, let’s consider the role that social-media platforms play in either reducing or improving well-being (the topic of my Master’s Thesis). Most early studies into the mental-health and well-being effects of social-media platforms like Facebook found linear correlations showing increased rates of depression, anxiety, sleep-disorders, social-isolation or bullying with increased time spent on the platform. The more you use social-media the greater the negative effects. However, scientists are now finding that the relationship between mental-health, well-being and social-media is far more complex. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the relationship between many digital technologies like social-media and well-being is not always linear. Meaning, that although excessive screen or social-media time seems to be linked to increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts (especially among teens), the relationship to mental-health and well-being appears to be curvilinear where too little or too much use, is associated with negative mental-health or social effects. But somewhere in the middle — not too much and not too little use — there are positive social and mental-health benefits including increased well-being. A relationship and hypothesis appropriately known as the Goldilocks Effect.
Since the youth of today depend on social-media as a way of supporting and building peer-groups and social-support networks, creating a virtual space to explore interests or to connect with peers in marginalized groups like LGBT teens, as well as being a source of validation and the development of self-image, denying them access to social-media entirely would put them at a significant disadvantage among their peers. So although early warnings around the dangers of social-media often resulted in drastic reactions that involved denying children and teens access to these important communication tools, we now know after looking closer at the data and taking a “positive psychology” approach to the these technologies that neither denying teens access to social-media outright or allowing unlimited access, is a good thing and that finding a healthy balance between too little and too much time on social-media may ensure more positive rather than negative mental-health or social effects.
“Social media is called social media for a reason. It lends itself to sharing rather than horn-tooting.” ~ Margaret Atwood
The relationship between mental-health risks, well-being and social media is even more complex than the curvilinear Goldilocks Effect described in the previous section. Even with what may be considered “excessive” or “problematic” social-media use, whether are not one experiences negative effects is also dependent on a variety of mitigating or contributory factors related to self-esteem, emotional & psychological health, context and even usage patterns. Those who may already be struggling with emotional, psychological or self-esteem issues are at a far greater risk of experiencing not only social-media addiction, but many of the associated negative effects like depression, loneliness, anxiety and even suicide. And when it comes to usage patterns, passively scrolling through social-media is associated with a greater risk of mental-health issues like depression and anxiety. While actively engaging with friends and groups can not only mitigate the potential dangers of excessive use, but even improve well-being.
We now live in a digitally interconnected technological world where access to information, knowledge, entertainment and building social connections near and far, is literally at our finger tips. In many ways our lives have been improved, our knowledge has expanded and our social connections have grown to the point where we have new definitions for “friends” and “community”, literally spanning the entire planet. Along with the growing and pervasive use of these digital technologies we are also finding that there are potential risks to our mental-health and well-being, especially for vulnerable groups like children and teens. In order for us to continue using these technologies in a healthy and positive manner which reduces their potential negative effects while maximizing their potential for positive effects, we can leverage the science behind happiness and well-being to help us learn how better to design, choose and use these digital technologies in a positive and healthy way. The new field of Positive Technology — which leverages the science of Positive Psychology — is poised to help us along this path and may offer us an antidote to the potential risks and negative effects associated with many of these digital technologies.
“Turn off all notifications on your phone, except the most important ones. And check your social media only once or twice a day, not every minute. If you can do this, then perhaps there is a possibility, that society will not completely lose its sanity and health after all.” ~ Abhijit Naskar
Tips For Healthy Social-Media Use:
If your friends or family have raised concerns about your smart-phone or social-media use, if your work or school has suffered as a result of your smart-phone or social-media use, or if you have been losing sleep or find that you simply cannot stop looking at your phone, here are some basic suggestions on using smart-phones and social-media in a more positive manner which reduces the potential for negative effects and increases the positive ones:
- Disable notifications if possible (excluding family exceptions if necessary).
- Rather than always looking at your phone with each “beep”, set aside specific times each day to check your phone/computer & possibly one day per week for no screen time at all.
- Remove digital devices from the bedroom before sleeping.
- When going online, set an intention or goal, rather than passively scrolling (education, communication, entertainment etc)
- Avoid passively scrolling and actively engage with friends, family or interest groups.