Digital Technology and Wellbeing


By Victoria Bromham, Second Year Chemistry

Victoria Bromham reports on the effects of digital technology on wellbeing and what tech giants should be doing to help.

We all know that technology is harming us. We’re less sociable, have shorter attention spans and suffer from mental health issues more than ever before. It’s no surprise that pressure is mounting on tech giants to take action, with many introducing new initiatives encouraging us to be more conscious of the time we spend online and its effects on our wellbeing. However, a recent Nature article argues that this may not be the full story, with many studies indicating the negative impact of digital technology to be small, and causal evidence lacking. Some research has even shown that moderate use of social media platforms is better for our wellbeing than none at all, by providing more opportunities to connect and strengthen social bonds. Although Facebook, Apple and Google have all recently launched features promoting content from family and friends over brands and media content and making it easier to monitor smartphone usage on iOS and Android OS, there is currently limited empirical evidence that this is necessary. So, is tech being blamed prematurely?

person using black iPad
Photo by NordWood Themes / Unsplash

There is little doubt that many social media platforms encourage addictive behaviours. Snapstreaks reward users who snap friends every single day, news feeds are designed to enable endless scrolling, and many social media sites deliberately create irregularly-timed rewards, meaning that users check their smartphone compulsively, never knowing when the next burst of social affirmation (and its accompanying dopamine hit) will arrive. It is also important to acknowledge that most tech brands are driven by advertising and are therefore incentivised to keeps users on their platforms for as long as possible, generally by targeting our reward systems and emotions such as outrage. Campaigns such as the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement, founded by former Google employee Tristan Harris, aim to reverse what they describe as a ‘digital attention crisis’, claiming that ‘technology is hijacking our minds and society’, and differs from traditional media in its use of AI, pervasive 24/7 influence and potential for social control. The organisation calls for corporations to help users to limit the time they spend on social media platforms, as well as advocating for policy change in order to provide better protection for consumers.

The ‘Google effect’, also known as ‘digital amnesia’, refers to our tendency to forget information that we are able to find easily online, and several studies have found that reading from a screen decreases our ability to retain information. However, findings from research into the effects of technology on memory have been mixed, making it difficult to comment categorically on its role. Some studies have shown that having a phone in the immediate vicinity can affect our ability to concentrate on tasks, but that this seems to only be temporary - however, it remains unclear how permanent any effects of technology on our brains are, and the rate at which the technology is advancing makes it difficult to study its long-term impact. Rising diagnoses of ADHD and mental health disorders are also often blamed on technology, but their increased prevalence may be due to changing attitudes towards mental health and greater awareness of symptoms rather than the technology itself.

The Royal Society for Public Health recently introduced ‘Scroll Free September’, a campaign designed to encourage us to take a break from social media, as well as to address fears that it is detrimental to the mental health of young people. Some say that it is too early to be treating our dependence on technology as a public health risk, given the lack of robust evidence that it’s harmful, while others argue that it is imperative that we act now in order to mitigate the effects of a future mental health crisis. Claire Murdoch, National Director for Mental Health, NHS England, says that ‘Scroll Free September is right to highlight growing concerns that social media is contributing to increasing mental health issues in young people, and a major ramp-up of services will be needed to deal with the problems as part of the NHS 10-year plan. We need to see concerted action, with everyone taking responsibility, including social media giants, so that the NHS is not left to pick up the pieces of a mental health epidemic in the next generation.’

However, a recent report on the relationship between technology and young people’s mental health based on data gathered by the National Centre for Social Research and the Office for National Statistics shows that young people with a mental disorder are much more likely to be spending time online than those without one. Nearly one in three young people with a mental disorder spend at least four hours on social media a typical school day compared with one in six without a disorder. This may suggest that young people who are predisposed to mental health issues are significantly more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with social media (perhaps even using it as a coping mechanism), rather than it being the root cause.

One factor affecting research into the relationship between wellbeing and technology is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify appropriate control groups, due to the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. There are also concerns over the science being unreliable, due to the fact that the computer code and data collected in these studies often aren’t open and so cannot be independently analysed. Furthermore, some believe that the increased focus on the negative impacts of smartphones and social media is detracting attention from more pressing issues, such as protecting children’s privacy online and examining the influence of algorithms.

There is still lots of research to be done in order to determine how our growing dependence on technology could be affecting our brains. Tech is developing faster than our ability to comprehend its effects, sparking debate over whether it’s right to start intervening before we have all the facts. While the jury is still out on whether digital technology is bad for our wellbeing, its disruptive influence on sleeping patterns is undisputed, and it can be a huge distraction - a 2017 Deloitte survey found that more than half of 16 to 24-year olds believe that they spend too much time on their phones. Whether you believe that tech is having a negative impact on your wellbeing, infringing on your sleep or just enabling procrastination, it may be beneficial to start cutting back. Yet it is also too early to come to a conclusion on how it is affecting our health and acting before we have adequate evidence may mean missing out on a valuable opportunity to study it properly.

Featured Image:Robin Worrall/ Unsplash

Should tech giant be doing more for our mental health? Let us know your thoughts!