Digital technology: Friend or foe to mental health?

It’s clear that digital technology – especially in the form of social media – is here to stay. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – these are all household words by now. Digital technology has engaged healthcare as well; electronic health records, health apps and websites have ramped up the capacity for information-gathering and sharing, and perhaps even more relevant, actual treatment.

For some, the use of digital technology in behavioral health treatment sets up a tension that is hard to resolve. On the upside, social media can help improve access to care; reduce stigma associated with seeking mental health services; and offer treatment options. On the downside, research indicates that overuse of social media and other digital technology contributes to mental health challenges.

How, then, can something that causes problems be part of the solution to solve those problems? It’s an interesting question that led to Beacon Health Options’ own exploration of the issue through our new white paper, “Digital technology: Friend or foe to mental health?”, which looks at the impact of digital technology use by generation and mental health disorder.

The association between social media use and mental wellbeing is complex. However, as social media becomes more common, we can’t ignore its practical side for addressing mental health conditions.

Social media use and age

Social media use is here to stay. Today, 72 percent of Americans use social media, compared to 5 percent in 2005. Although younger people are the greatest consumers of social media use, older adults are the fastest growing group.

Interestingly, social media use has both negative and positive effects on youth and older adults. For example, it results in compulsive behavior, isolation and anxiety among youth while also enhancing their communication skills and developing new interests. In older adults, social media use can lead to distraction and poor memory functioning while also increasing brain activity.

Benefits of social media use outweigh negatives

In one study of people with mental illness, participants acknowledged the negative elements of social media use – cyberbullying, stigma, discrimination etc. – but reported that the benefits outweigh the negatives. Generally, platforms such as YouTube and Twitter help people feel less isolated and to advocate for themselves, as they can share experiences and exchange coping strategies.

The association between social media use and mental wellbeing is complex. However, as social media becomes more common, we can’t ignore its practical side for addressing mental health conditions.

Digital technology: Expanding access for treating mental health

Digital technology is changing mental health treatment, with implications for clinical practice, services and access to those services. For individuals, it promotes person-centered care by providing choice: more treatment options, convenience and alternative delivery options. For clinicians, digital technology provides new modes of assessment and enables clinical training to be conducted on a broader scale.

Examples of digital treatment include face-to-face weekly counseling sessions via telephone or online video; briefer, more frequent sessions via websites or apps; flexible modules that allow people to choose service components; and more. It also features self-monitoring tools; interactive quizzes and games; and video feedback.

As we better understand how the different generations use social media, especially as it relates to understanding and treating mental health conditions, we can apply its use for discreet populations. For example, employers can tap into the growing comfort with consumer health technology to increase their Employee Assistance Program utilization. College campuses can better meet the growing demand for student mental health services by offering on-demand, real-time options for a population that works and plays most hours of the day.

Parting thoughts

However, is all of this effective? Convenience and treatment options are only valuable if people’s lives improve. While more research needs to be done, there is enough evidence to support the use of digital technology in providing mental health treatment, especially when supported by clinicians or coaches. 

Digital technology and its relationship to mental health is not an all-or-nothing proposition. What may seem like a contradiction – using the technology to solve the problems that it can help create – is in fact an opportunity. What we need to remember is the importance of person-centered care. What may work for one person may not work as well for another and which approach to take – online, in-person or a blend of the two – is up to the individual and his/her clinician.


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