Digital technologies and mental well-being
- Contrary to popular belief, the use of digital technology is rarely the cause of mental health problems. The impact of digital technology on mental well-being depends primarily on the user, the way they use the technology, and the situation of use.
- Problematic technology use undoubtedly exists but is statistically far less common than generally believed. In the Estonian media, the discussion of digital technology’s impact on mental health tends to be exaggerated.
- Digital technologies are an underused resource for mental well-being. They act as a self-help tool, help expand and diversify social participation and involvement, help create and maintain meaningful relationships, and support the work of mental health professionals. Mindful use and self-regulation skills are important.
In recent decades, mental health problems have been increasingly associated with digital communication technology, especially the use of smart devices with a screen and social media.
However, there is no consensus among researchers on the impact of digital technology. A number of studies find that using smart devices and social media and playing computer games causes mental overload, leading to depression, anxiety, moodiness, sleep and eating disorders, communication problems, and even ‘digital dementia’. On the other hand, a similar number of studies claim that the use of these same technologies helps to build relationships, enables participation and belonging, provides support and a sense of security, gives access to information, reduces stress and anxiety, alleviates boredom, provides entertainment, teaches resilience, improves memory in older people, and even helps surgeons achieve a better success rate. The truth does not lie between these two extremes; instead, it lies in the simultaneous validity of both opposing claims. To explain this, I will present some statements confirmed by international studies and discussed in more detail in the articles of this chapter. These help to make sense of how digital technology can support mental well-being even when the relationship between the two continues to be culturally overburdened.
While there are a multitude of digital technologies, this chapter reflects the data available for Estonia and therefore focuses on internet use, computers, smart devices, tracking applications and social media. It looks at mental well-being in general rather than mental health problems in specific. In Estonia, online guided meditations and mindfulness apps are gaining popularity, but the use of digital technologies for activities supporting mental well-being has not yet been sufficiently studied.
In public discussion and parenting discourse, the distinction drawn between ‘real life’ and ‘virtual life’, although dismissed by researchers, continues to be widespread. In fact, we only live one life but do so in ways that are mediated by technology and in ways that are not.
But it does mean that the contrast between different instances of face-to-face communication (such as whispering sweet nothings to your lover in the park versus yelling at the opposing team’s fans in a stadium parking lot) may be greater than the difference between acts of face-to-face communication and online communication (such as talking with grandma at the summer house versus chatting with her on FaceTime). Online communities can become even more important to people than ‘real-world’ communities. The articles in this chapter discuss some of the alternative groups that have become popular in Estonia in recent years. New spirituality, folk wisdom and conspiracy theory groups on social media function as interpretive and participatory communities that can have a very real-life impact despite the fact that they exist online.
How and for what purpose someone uses the internet or smart devices, which needs and desires they seek to satisfy and what the overall impact of their digital technology use is obviously depends primarily on the user.
Some people are more vulnerable to developing problematic (e.g. excessive or obsessive) patterns of technology use due to their personality, self-esteem, cultural competences and mental health background. It is important to note the direction of the causality here. Although it is commonly argued that technology use is the cause and poor mental health is the effect, research tends to show the opposite. Poor mental health leads to problematic technology use.
How we as a society talk about the impact of technology use matters. One of the reasons why studies consistently find drastic differences between perceived and measured effects is due to media coverage that can stir up moral panics. Anxious and sensationalist media coverage, which constantly talks about addiction, causes people to overestimate both their own (young people) and others’ (parents, teachers) screen time and the impact technology has on their well-being with regard to both themselves (young people) and others (parents, teachers).
MORAL PANICPublic discourse – often transmitted by the media – that amplifies public concern about social order and values is described as a ‘moral panic’. In a moral panic, a purported problem is exaggerated and its causes, consequences, victims and villains sensationalized.For example, a harmless activity (listening to music) may be depicted as leading to terrible consequences (a school shooting). Technology panic is a type of moral panic that focuses on new technologies. As a rule, each new technology panic is almost identical to previous ones. Over the past couple of centuries, the media has claimed that children (and maybe also women) are being corrupted by, alternately, novels, the telephone, cinema, radio, rock’n’roll music, comic books, television, VHS tapes, Walkman cassette players, computers, the internet, social networking sites, computer games, smartphones and, most recently, TikTok. According to the media, using these technologies leads to delinquency, excessive individualism, dangerous sexual and health behaviour; destroying the traditional nuclear family, its values and thus, of course, the whole fabric of society.
User-centred studies that analyse the relationship between digital technologies and mental well-being tend to focus on users’ age, often looking at children and young people.
Despite frequent claims that the mental health of children and young people is deteriorating due to digital technologies, research does not support such generalisations. Based on long-term social studies, Vuorre et al. (2021) analyse analyse how the use of smart devices and social media1correlates with depression, suicidality, anger and worry, and compare it with the correlations to TV watching. They find that the relationship between technology use and depression has actually weakened over the last decade, while social media use is now more strongly correlated with worry and other indicators remain unchanged. Many other researchers collecting data in different countries (see e.g. Rozgonjuk et al. 2020) have arrived at results showing that social media use is not associated with depressiveness. (see e.g Rozgonjuk et al. 2020). Older people, on the other hand, are facing real mental health risks.
In their case, changes in mental well-being are associated with declining cognitive ability and increasing loneliness which is why lack of digital competencies and the non-use of digital technologies emerge as risks (Quinn 2018). In this chapter, we look at the connections between the use of digital technologies and mental well-being in children, young people, older people and families.
The data gathered in Estonia clearly shows a need to reduce generational inequality in digital literacy and access to participation.
What digital technology means to the user and how it affects them also depends on the particular properties of the technology. On the one hand, the features and functions of the technology matter – the menu options and buttons, which actions are easy to perform and which are more complicated, and what the rules allow or forbid. On the other hand, users agency also matters – how people actually use the technology and how they break the rules for ease of use. In academic discourse, the concept of affordances is used to describe this intersection between the characteristics of the technology and the users’ agency. Thus, the fundamental question is this: What are the mental well-being affordances of each particular technology?
The mental well-being affordances (or lack thereof) of today’s digital technology are obviously not set in stone. Platforms and applications and their menu options, buttons and rules are created by private companies.
The current information disorder and platform design that induces social comparison is a product of the last 25 years, during which governments did not interfere much in the digital technology industry, and platform developers built their user interfaces based solely on how best to capture and hold users’ attention. They were not thinking about our individual and collective well-being. At the same time, there has been a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of giant platforms (e.g. Facebook), companies that own various platforms (e.g. Meta, formerly Facebook), and app stores or device manufacturers (e.g. Apple). This means that what could be considered internal business decisions about trade secrets (concerning how the service works or what the buttons, toolbar items and rules of use are) actually significantly shape how we treat each other and what we think is right. This is directly linked to mental well-being. For example, Meta has been aware for years that the algorithm that treats Facebook’s ‘angry’ reaction emoji as worth five times more than a ‘like’ provokes rage and amplifies the spread of misinformation. Likewise, Meta is aware that adolescents with fragile mental health can suffer when Instagram’s recommendation algorithm systematically feeds them thin-ideal images (Frenkel 2021).Both algorithms were designed to increase engagement and did so successfully, so Meta was reluctant to change their logic, regardless of user well-being.
It is common to measure the use of digital technology use in time. However, the American Association of Pediatrics, which first proposed the globally recognised ‘2 × 2’ rule (no more than two hours of screen time per day and not before the age of two), admitted in 2016 that this recommendation was not science-based and did not fit well with the reality of digitally saturated life. Instead of of dogged calculation of screentime hours, it is important to think about what people do during their screen time and why, with whom and how they do it (Livingstone 2019).
Video-calling your grandma, posting on TikTok, browsing Instagram, and playing a computer game are all ‘screen time’, but these activities stimulate us differently, satisfy different needs and carry different risks. But even this is an oversimplification. It makes a difference whether the computer game a 9-year-old plays for an hour is Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft and whether the child plays alone or with others, or with strangers or acquaintances. It also makes a difference whether a 14-year-old spends two hours scrolling through fitness model content on Instagram or posting her K-Pop drawings to a small fan community and commenting on others’ posts. We know from research that mental well-being tends to be supported by creative uses of technology that foster relationships, a sense of belonging and self-realisation.
Of course, we all only have 24 hours a day, which means that in addition to using digital technology that supports our mental well-being or is unavoidable for work or school, we should also get enough sleep, nutrition and exercise. While time-based tracking can help the families to reach agreements. It is important to remember that what we do with the time matters.
When thinking about the future of mental well-being in the context of the digital technologies currently in use and discussed in the articles of this chapter, it is important to note that a significant shift is taking place.
For ordinary users, digital technology is inescapable, useful and helpful but also intrusive, tiring and disempowering. A critical stance is replacing naive enthusiasm. In the process, more and more people are actively managing their technology use. Based on recent research, people’s digital competenceies increasingly include digital self-regulation and self-care. This means turning off reminders and notifications, blocking content and users, and periodically avoiding social media or other platforms by practising what is known as digital fasting. Hopefully, this will usher in a more conscious and balanced use of technology that also serves mental well-being.
Another way to think about the future of mental health is in terms of future technologies. Artificial-intelligence-based diagnostics and treatment and digital pills have been developed but are still in their infancy. Interventionist technologies (apps and online spaces intended to help people with mental health problems or support the work of professionals) have been around for a while longer, but we still have too little data for their evidence-based evaluation.
However, for both current and future technologies, it is important whether they are designed, created and built to support well-being, and how problems are resolved that become apparent during use. So far, the regulation of digital giants has been driven by the logic of an emerging industry and economic growth – the companies have been largely self-regulating. We now know that this laissez-faire approach has not been justified when it comes to ensuring (mental) well-being. It is time to opt for a human-centred and well-being-oriented approach. Whether digital technologies are developed, designed and regulated to serve well-being is a much more important question for the future of mental health than the number of hours a day people use a computer.
Frenkel, S. (2021, Oct, 5). Key takeaways from Facebook’s whistle-blower hearing. NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/10/05/technology/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen#what-happened-at-facebook-whistleblower-hearing
Livinsgtone. S. (2019). From policing screen time to weighing screen use. Parenting for a digital futuure, a blog about growing up in a digital world. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/2019/02/08/from-policing-screen-time/
Quinn, K. (2018). Cognitive Effects of Social Media Use: A Case of Older Adults. Social Media + Society, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305118787203
Rozgonjuk, D., Pruunsild, P., Jürimäe, K., Schwarz, R.-J., & Aru, J. (2020). Instagram use frequency is associated with problematic smartphone use, but not with depression and anxiety symptom severity. Mobile Media & Communication, 8(3), 400–418. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050157920910190Vuorre, M., Orben, A., &
Przybylski, A. K. (2021). There Is No Evidence That Associations Between Adolescents’ Digital Technology Engagement and Mental Health Problems Have Increased. Clinical Psychological Science, 9(5), 823–835. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702621994549