With as many as 90% of people in UK workplaces reporting that mental health challenges have touched them in some way, I wanted to explore how much of this might be attributed to our increasing reliance on technology.
There have been increasing concerns over the direct impact that technology can have on our health – everything from the physical and mental impact of spending long hours sitting at a computer, to over-reliance on our mobile devices and inability to ‘switch off’.
Add social media to the mix and there’s potential for a potent set of influences. Just look at the largely media-fuelled stampede for household staples in the UK recently, with people stockpiling everything from pasta to toilet roll, in fear of an approaching Armageddon due to Corvid-19.
From anxiety to addiction, disrupted sleep to vision problems, we’re learning more and more about how being constantly connected to our devices can harm us.
And, on the flip side, what are the positive aspects of technology related to mental health?
In this article I’m going to explore 5 key ways that technology can impact our mental health – for better or for worse.
Spending long hours at a computer – the mental health impacts
The physical impacts of hours spent sitting at a computer are well documented. From postural problems to issues with blurred vision, headaches and dizziness, to the wider impact of lack of movement and exercise, this sedentary way of working can have serious long-term effects.
But working at a computer can cause other problems too. We’ve been conditioned to see multi-tasking as a positive way to achieve more in less time, and with the plethora of communication platforms available to us, it’s easy to become mentally distracted.
1. Digital distraction as a source of stress
A study of high school students by Professor Rosen of California State University looked at how technological distractions affected their study habits. Building on earlier research demonstrating how distractions affected their scores, he discovered that students might be concentrating for an average of just three minutes at a time.
Not only this, but between 2016 and 2017 when he and colleagues conducted two separate studies, daily use of smartphones increased from 220 to 262 minutes, with increased use of social media – causing them to be distracted for at least 5 out of every 15 minutes of study.
When we spend a lot of time working with technology, we’re probably using multiple devices and communications platforms. Emails, texts and instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp all vie for our attention. Then there are the group working platforms beloved of many modern organisations – like Trello or Slack.
Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting any of these are harmful in themselves. They can be incredibly helpful and productive, and often give us the benefit of being able to work remotely, or from home. This can help us to avoid the stress of the morning commute, or the distractions of working in an office with others.
But when we’re constantly plugged in to multiple digital communications platforms, what we’re actually doing is changing tasks very frequently, sometime every few minutes. Our brains are distracted and we’re not concentrating on anything properly.
This constant switching between tasks makes us less effective, and can raise our stress and anxiety levels.
2. Isolation – the curse of remote working
Remote working, or working from home, can be a blessing, and a big stress reducer. It can help busy parents to juggle work and childcare commitments, as well as avoiding the aforementioned commute. It can allow over-stretched executives to focus on projects without the interruptions of work colleagues stopping by for a chat, or the requirement to attend endless and unproductive in-person meetings.
But whilst the ability to work from anywhere certainly has its benefits, regular remote workers can also become disconnected from a team and experience a sense of isolation from their colleagues – which can have a negative impact on their mental health as well as their productivity.
3. The perils of round-the-clock technology
On the positive side, technology has, to a certain extent, begun to free us from the strictures of office hours. We don’t have to be sitting at our desk in an office to be working, and to be productive.
On the other hand, there is a danger that we never quite leave work behind. It’s all too easy to be constantly checking up on work via our mobile devices – well into the evening, at weekends and even on holiday. If that’s a positive choice that works for you, that’s all well and good. But we all need some downtime with clear life-work boundaries, and this inability to detach from technology can lead to disturbed sleep patterns, anxiety, stress and depression.
It can also impact on our personal relationships and on those around us.
Bear in mind that, whilst it might be OK for you to be replying to work emails and messages at midnight or beyond, the recipient might not be quite so on board with that, especially when we’re using multiple methods of communication.
One of my clients has a client of their own who uses email, text, and WhatsApp to keep in touch. She’ll email, then text to say she’s emailed, then message or call via WhatsApp if she hasn’t had an instant response. And this is at all hours. My client, who is juggling work with three children and a partner with health issues, uses WhatsApp to keep on top of personal arrangements as well as work. So she can’t turn it off. This is a major stress trigger for her.
I’d like to think none of us would set out to deliberately raise our colleagues’ anxiety levels – so it’s worth giving some thought to how your communications will be received, and when. What might feel like enthusiasm and productivity to you, could be having a very different effect on the recipient.
4. Problematic Internet Use, or ‘iDisorder’
On that note, do you feel a constant need to check your texts and emails or view and update your social media accounts? Do you feel anxious if you are separated from your phone or tablet?
If so, you may be suffering from what Professor Rosen identified as ‘iDisorder’, which he summarises as: “where you exhibit signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disorder such as OCD, narcissism, addiction or even ADHD, which are manifested through your use—or overuse—of technology.”
An obsessive need to check for text messages, constantly update your Facebook status, or a near-addiction to iPhone games are all manifestations of iDisorder.
Experts advise that we build in some downtime each day (and remember to switch off a good two hours before bedtime).
5. Technology and sleep disruption
There are plenty of studies around showing how excessive smartphone, computer and tablet use can disrupt your sleep patterns.
Many of us sleep with our phones on, even if silenced, and close at hand. Checking a phone in the middle of the night (for reasons other than to check the time) isn’t uncommon.
Sleep habits are important. We now understand a lot more about how lack of sleep affects long-term health – both physical and mental. Habitual lack of quality sleep makes us more susceptible to major health issues such as weight gain, heart disease, stroke and cancer as well as depression and mood disorders.
6. Technology, anxiety and depression
Anxiety is a natural emotion, hard-wired into us as part of our ancestral ‘fight or flight’ triggers. Modern anxiety triggers include our workload, money-worries, health, family life and many other factors. Sufferers of anxiety disorder find that their natural response is out of proportion to the actual threat, with recurring responses which can range from intrusive thoughts to physical symptoms including elevated heartbeat, trembling, sweating and dizziness.
Modern technology, whilst making us time-rich in some respects, can contribute towards anxiety, stress and depression.
With the ability to get constant entertainment and stimulation, there is evidence to suggest that our brains can become addicted to the dopamine hit – leading us to seek out more stimulation, or become depressed without it.
How can we make technology work for our mental fitness?
We know certain things in moderation are good for us, but taken to excess are bad for our health. Perhaps we need to learn to view technology in a similar way.
In my work with industry leaders, some of my favourite tips to get people started with moderating their technology use include:
· Try short periods of inaccessibility. If you can, rather than keeping your phone or tablet by you all the time, keep it tucked away and check it at designated times throughout the day.
· Leave your phone at home one day a week.
· Set a switch-off time for any screens, a good couple of hours before you go to bed
We also need to find ways to give our brains a rest. You remember how relaxed your mind and body can feel after a holiday? I like to factor in periods of non-activity or restorative activities – like exercise – to recharge my batteries whilst letting go of the tech exposure.
Mobile apps for mental fitness
With smartphone use still on the up, most people now have easy access to thousands of apps. Health and fitness apps have seen a surge in numbers, and those designed to help us improve our mental fitness are proving very popular. Requiring no visit to a GP or other professional help, these apps can be downloaded and used in the comfort of the home, with support and advice on hand 24/7. From meditation apps like Headspace, to support with quitting smoking or drinking, our smartphones can provide us with motivation and encouragement. Practical apps can help us monitor our medication use, exercise levels and fitness – even our sleep patterns.
Accessing peer support
Many of these apps also offer us access to a wide community of peer support. Take significant investments like Peloton, the in-home studio cycling package that gives us access to live classes and a leaderboard-style peer group. Or there are many closed social media groups (some free, others part of a paid-for package) that allow us to get support from our peers for anything from weight loss to overcoming substance abuse issues. The beauty of these groups is that we can share information and ask for (or offer) support, encouragement and advice, without having to leave our homes.
One client I work with has long-standing weight problems which have a huge impact on self-esteem and motivation across all aspects of their life. Previous experience of ‘traditional’ weight loss programmes which require the weekly weigh-in and ‘walk of shame’ were, in their own words, “little short of torture” for this shy introvert, and led to temporary success followed by a swift return to the status quo. A new approach, involving a simple Facebook support group has allowed them to engage with a programme without fear, and to become part of a truly supportive peer group.
Whatever your view of modern technology, it’s here to stay. What’s vital is that you learn to listen to your own mind and body, and to recognise what works for you, and what may be leading to problems. Taken in moderation, we can all enjoy the huge benefits of technology, whilst avoiding the potential pitfalls for our mental fitness.