Technology & Mental Health: 10 Ways to Cultivate Healthy Habits

Technology & Mental HealthCan you imagine living without technology? I can’t.

Technology is incorporated into every aspect of our lives.

Most of us use technology to manage work tasks, online meetings, and email, but we also use technology to relax. For example, we binge-watch Netflix, play online games, and watch YouTube.

We also use technology to track our health and fitness (Hello, Strava!), keep in contact with friends and family (Hello, Facebook!), keep up to date with current affairs and news (Hello, Reuters!), and make online purchases (Hello, Amazon!).

Although technology is undeniably important, some researchers question the impact of technology on our mental health across our core life domains. This article explores the effects of technology on mental health, as well as some practical resources to alleviate the risks it poses and create healthier technology habits.

 

The Impact of Technology on Mental Health: 5 Findings

The term “technology” is quite broad, but for our purposes, it will include:

  • Social media
  • Gaming
  • Mobile phones and messaging applications
  • Streaming
  • Email
  • Other tools for work and productivity

 

The positive impact of technology on mental health

One of the positive aspects of technology is that we can stay connected to family and friends, despite distance and periods of forced isolation. It also allows us to cross geographical boundaries to access materials and resources.

For example, we connect with colleagues and professionals who work in other countries, communicate with people who share our interests and work expertise, attend conferences and complete studies online, and use online dating apps.

Technology also helps us make contact with other people during difficult times. For example, older adults are often at risk of isolation. Their children might move away, they have less contact with other people after retirement, or they might live alone and have fewer living friends and family members.

For older adults, the ability to connect with other people through technology is especially important (Fang, Chau, Wong, Fung, & Woo, 2018). Additionally, the risks of isolation and depression are higher during a period of bereavement, but technology appears to act as a protective factor for bereaving older adults (Vanderwerker & Prigerson, 2004).

The positive benefits of technology are not limited to only friends, family, and work. We can also use technology for mental health. For example, we can schedule online sessions with therapists using teletherapy, use coaching apps to assist with mental health, and subscribe to online exercise programs.

Caregivers had the greatest reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression following treatment that included technology-based interventions compared to only traditional therapy (Eisdorfer et al., 2003). Technology can also help young adults combat cyberbullying and develop better coping strategies (McLouglin, Spears, & Taddeo, 2018).

 

The negative impacts of technology on mental health

Unfortunately, technology can also harm our mental health. For example, technology affects our sleep (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2016), which affects our mental health. More on this later.

Technology makes us more accessible. We can be messaged, emailed, or called at any time. While increased accessibility can be good, especially for emergencies, there are also negative consequences. For example, work colleagues can contact us after hours and friends can message us at any time (Adams & Kisler, 2013). We might take work home with us and work longer hours, thereby feeling compelled to respond to messages immediately.

There is a great deal of research investigating the effects of mobile work on our mental health, but some researchers posit that mobile work makes us feel more stressed and less satisfied (Cousins & Robey, 2015; Piszczek, 2017). For these reasons, we need boundaries so that colleagues know that we only respond to work requests during work hours.

Scott, Valley, and Simecka (2017) list the following possible negative side effects of technology use:

  1. Increased stress
  2. Increased need for immediate gratification
  3. Increase in clinical disorders and syndromes such as anxiety, depression, and personality disorders
  4. Decreased emotional connections and reduced empathy
  5. Decreased self-esteem and self-image
  6. Decreased attention and increased attentional difficulties
  7. Increased difficulties setting boundaries with other people

The increase in mobile phone use has been linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression (Demirci, Akgönül, & Akpinar, 2015; Kim, Seo, & David, 2015). Users might also use social media and messaging as a way to receive reassurance from friends and family (Billieux, Maurage, Lopez-Fernandez, Kuss, & Griffiths, 2015).

Specifically, social media and messaging are used as a way to alleviate feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem. Although this might seem like a benefit of social media, research suggests that the effect is often overwhelmingly negative.

Frequent users of social media might engage in upward social comparison, which is associated with lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression (see discussion in Vogel, Rose, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014).

Using mobile phones also has ‘habit-forming properties’; for example, we receive audible and visual notifications when we receive a message, and it is difficult to ignore these prompts. Additionally, the sight of our mobile is enough to prompt us to check for notifications; these behaviors reinforce our reliance on our mobile phones.

Increased mobile phone use can be classified as ‘addictive,’ and users often report feeling anxious when they don’t have their mobile phones close by. Other concerns about the effect of technology on mental health center around addiction.

Researchers have asked:

  • Can gaming be addictive?
  • Can technology be addictive?

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined a new syndrome called the ‘internet gaming disorder,’ which is considered part of ‘internet addiction.’ However, there has been a great deal of criticism leveled at the addition of this syndrome because it implies that gaming can only be an addiction if it is online, rather than on a computer but not connected to the internet.

Additionally, the symptoms of this diagnosis are poorly defined and pathologize normal behavior. For example, thinking about playing games is considered a symptom of this disorder. Various papers provide an excellent discussion of these issues (e.g., Kuss & Billieux, 2017; Kuss, Griffiths, & Pontes, 2017).

 

Tools to Create Better Boundaries With Technology

Mobile phones

Tools to create boundariesThe first tip to help you create boundaries with technology is to put your mobile phone on silent during work hours or place your phone in a different room or a drawer.

By removing your phone from your immediate environment, you should be less inclined to check your phone for messages and notifications. Putting your phone on silent is crucial because you might feel compelled to check your phone if you hear it.

 

Email and messaging

Add a signature to your email that says something like:

My messages may arrive outside of the working day, but this does not imply any expectation that you should reply outside of your normal working hours. If you wish to respond, please do so when convenient. However, please extend the same courtesy to me.

You could add a similar message to your messaging status. This way, your contacts know not to expect an immediate response.

To help you enforce these boundaries, put set times in your calendar for when you will check your email and messages. For example, you can put aside 30–45 minutes to respond to email in the morning and in the afternoon.

 

Distracting sites

To help you focus at work and to stop yourself from logging into distracting sites, you can try the Google Chrome extension StayFocusd.

With this extension, you can make a list of banned sites that you are not allowed to visit during certain hours. The extension also limits how much time you can spend on certain sites; those sites are banned once you reach that limit.

 

7 Ways to Manage the Impact of Technology on Sleep

Adolescents who play more video games and watch more television are more likely to be obese (Arora et al., 2013) and sleep less (Calamaro, Yang, Ratcliffe, & Chasens, 2012).

Different types of technology also have different effects on sleep. When researching children’s sleep and their use of technology, Arora, Broglia, Thomas, and Taheri (2014) found that:

  • Using social media was associated with less sleep
  • Studying on a computer was associated with less sleep
  • Playing video games was associated with longer sleep onset, as well as less sleep
  • Listening to music led to less sleep
  • Nightmares were most likely to occur after listening to music
  • All forms of technology were associated with difficulty ‘shutting off’

The negative effects of technology on sleep are not limited to children but are also found in young adults (Adams & Kisler, 2013) and adults (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2016).

Specifically, using a mobile phone before sleeping resulted in longer sleep onset, poorer quality of sleep, more sleep disturbances, and thus increased feelings of tiredness the next day (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, 2016). These results were more pronounced for adults younger than 45 years.

Additionally, the type of light emitted from a mobile phone has a detrimental effect on sleep. Mobile mobiles emit short-wavelength light, which impairs melatonin production, a type of hormone that induces feelings of sleepiness.

We produce more melatonin when our environment becomes darker, which makes us feel sleepy; however, we produce less melatonin when our environment is bright and well lit. The effect of light on melatonin is long lasting. We produce less melatonin even hours after we are exposed to light (Cajochen et al., 2011).

To help manage the impact of technology on sleep, try the following tips:

  1. Do not put a television in the bedroom.
  2. Restrict technology use at least one hour before going to sleep. This includes watching television or a tablet, playing games, working on a laptop, using your mobile phone, and engaging with social media.
  3. Put your mobile phone on silent when you go to sleep so that you don’t wake up from messages or phone calls.
  4. Turn your mobile phone screen-side down so the light from the screen will not wake you up.
  5. Enforce boundaries and let people know that you will not answer texts, phone calls, or email between certain times.
  6. Before going to bed, complete relaxation techniques to help you sleep. For example, do a body scan, meditation, or breathing exercises.
  7. Keep your room dim at night to help stimulate melatonin.

 

Tips to Reduce Screen Time

Break times

ExerciseEnsure you get away from your computer for 10 minutes every hour.

When you’re having lunch, do not eat it at your desk, and if it’s a sunny day, sit outside to eat.

It is important to balance your desk time with other activities. Specifically, for your physical health, try to do regular exercise, move regularly, and do not use your computer for leisure activities as well as work (Buckley et al., 2015).

 

Scheduled correspondence times

The second tip is to schedule set times in your calendar when you will check your email and messages. If possible, set aside 30–45 minutes in the morning and the afternoon when you will respond to email. In addition, you can remove email apps from your mobile phone so that you can only check your email when you are on a computer.

 

Dedicated use of your mobile phone

Try not to use your mobile phone for anything except communication. Therefore, do not use it to read books, check the news, or play games.

If you want to play a game, invest in a physical board game or purchase a dedicated gaming device. If you want to read, invest in an e-reader that doesn’t use a harsh light or buy physical copies of books. And if you want to read the news, buy physical newspapers or check out news sites on your computer.

 

Create non-technology interests

Develop interests that are independent of technology. For example, aim to read all the books on your bookcase, cultivate a vegetable or herb garden, or attend art or yoga classes. The intention is that you depend less on your computer, television, or mobile phone for entertainment.

 

Meet with friends and family physically

Try to schedule in-person social events so that you can spend time with friends. You can use these opportunities to be outdoors, go away for the weekends, or play games. Online social events should always be a second option for in-person socialization.

Try to use a sports club or gym for exercise, or form an exercise group. Exercise groups allow you to socialize and spend time with other people. Finally, consider joining Meetup.com, where people arrange meetups for a variety of interests, including sports and exercise, hobbies, particular topics and ideas, and professional specialities.

 

3 Resources to Manage the Impact of Social Media

There is some evidence that excessive use of social media is associated with lower self-esteem and body image. For example, higher scores of depression were reported among students who relied on technology for social comparison and receiving feedback from peers (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015).

Similar negative results were found in a large study of 23,532 adults. Overall, increased use of social media was associated with lower self-esteem and higher scores of narcissism (Andreassen, Pallesen, & Griffiths, 2017).

Compared to people with high self-esteem, people with lower self-esteem tend to use social media more (Forest & Wood, 2012). Additionally, there is an established relationship between low levels of self-esteem and increased use of social media (Malik & Khan, 2015; Wang, Jackson, Zhang, & Su, 2012; Wilson, Fornasier, & White, 2010).

Increased social media use is associated with negative self-esteem, but the following tools can help counteract these negative effects:

  1. The Self-Love Journal is a set of journal prompts that can be used to highlight aspects of ourselves that we appreciate. In total, there are 10 prompts, which can be split over 10 days.

  2. My ‘Love Letter’ to Myself is another journaling tool that can be used to highlight what you like about yourself. In this tool, you will be prompted to list positive qualities about yourself, as well as situations where your strengths have worked to your benefit.

  3. The Designing Affirmations Worksheet helps you develop a list of affirmations about yourself. You will be prompted to list several qualities that you like about yourself, including behaviors, descriptors, and thoughts. You can easily transform this worksheet into daily affirmations.

 

16 Apps to Help You Out

App to track the amount of time spent working

AppsThe first recommended tool is Toggl.

Toggl is an online and desktop-based app that tracks your time working on specific tasks. In the desktop settings, you can indicate that you want to use the ‘Pomodoro’ method, where you work for 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break.

Toggl tracks your time and notifies you when your break starts. During your break, leave your desk and go outside, stretch for five minutes, or do a body scan. Make a point of getting away from your computer during the break.

 

Apps to change the type of light

The second app is f.lux for desktop machines, which gradually shifts the color tone of the light emitted from the screen. Your mobile phone might have a similar setting (e.g., Night Setting for Android or Night Shift for iOS). You can also install the following apps:

 

Apps to block access to certain websites and social media

There are many apps that you can use to block distracting sites and/or apps on your devices. Some of these apps are subscription based, but most have a free trial version.

For your computer:

For your mobile phone:

 

Apps to measure screen time on your phone

Before installing an app to reduce screen time on your phone, you might want to know how frequently you currently use it. This will give you an idea of what your baseline phone usage is.

Google has created several tools that can be used for this purpose:

Other apps to consider include:

 

Apps to deliver notifications all at once

These apps group your notifications and deliver them at once at set times. This is useful when you need to schedule periods of deep work and don’t want to be distracted.

 

PositivePsychology.com Materials

At PositivePsychology.com, we have tools that can help you reduce your screen time and set boundaries. These tools are listed below, alongside suggestions for how you could use each tool to limit your reliance on technology.

  1. The Habit Tracker tool will help you track time spent on your technology habits. Use this tool to track how much time you spend on different devices or apps. With this tool, you’ll get a better idea of what your baseline usage is and whether you are reducing it over time.

  2. Use the Wheel of Needs Assessment tool to determine whether your needs are addressed adequately. If one of your needs is lacking, then try to find non-technology ways to meet this need.

  3. Use the Setting Boundaries in Difficult Conversations tool to help you set technological boundaries with family, friends, and colleagues. This tool will empower you to enforce boundaries against constant inconsiderate attempts at communication and unreasonable expectations for a response.

 

A Take-Home Message

Technology can have positive and negative effects on our mental health.

It is clear that many of the negative effects result from how we use, or rather misuse, our devices.

The first step toward reducing the negative effects is to use our devices less and to enforce clear boundaries with how, when, and why we use them. Fortunately, our device usage is completely under our control.

With some consistency, we can reduce our reliance on our devices and, instead, use technology to enhance positive mental health.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, check out our Positive Relationships Masterclass©, which is a complete science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.

 

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About the Author

Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in multiple projects investigating eyewitness memory and face recognition. She’s highly skilled in research design, data analysis, and critical thinking. When she’s not working, she indulges in running on the road or the trails, and enjoys cooking.

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