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The dawn of digital angst: Why psychologists are expanding mental health assessment and treatment

Technology is woven into so many aspects of our lives the challenge for psychologists is separating troubling habit formation from regular screen time. Is the assessment and treatment in this area adequate? Read more

16 November, 2020

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Depression Digital Dependency Assessment Anxiety Telehealth Social Media and Mental Health

The term ‘screen time’ is now part of our daily lexicon. Whether it’s texting friends, sending emails to colleagues, scrolling through pictures on Instagram, or reading a stream of news alerts, we easily spend several hours each day on our mobile devices and computers.

In addition, the lockdown measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified society’s consumption of digital technology. In Australia alone, millions of people had to suddenly transition to a work-from-home or online learning mode, drastically increasing the volume of web-based activities.

But what are the impacts of these sorts of interactions and routines on our health? As the 21st century continues to produce new electronic media and smarter gadgets, it’s imperative to analyse the psychological effects of our constant immersion in digital technology. Initial research suggests that frequent use of these tools could trigger or exacerbate a variety of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and body dysmorphia.

However, because technology is woven into so many aspects of our lives, the challenge for psychologists is separating troubling habit formation from regular digital involvement. Fortunately, the rapid adoption of innovative healthcare services, such as telehealth, as well as the wider pursuit of wellness and mindfulness, are facilitating a paradigm shift in this area.

Understanding the risks of hyperconnectivity

In order to effectively solve a problem, one must be able to identify it first. That old adage rings true when tackling modern issues like screen addiction. According to Dr James Courtney, Associate Professor and Clinical Psychologist at Monash University, being online 24/7 can give rise to a form of dependency, particularly in developed economies where internet penetration rates are high.

“Digital dependence has emerged as a contemporary construct to seek and maintain a digitally connected lifestyle,” says James, who also oversees clinical governance at the Monash Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, a leading research institution focused on novel solutions for mental health challenges in the modern world.

“One of the factors with the strength of any dependency is how quickly things are rewarded. Digital technology can be similar to a drug – the quicker the response, the better the reward, so the more likely you are to use it and rely on it.”

Digital dependency can manifest in numerous forms, for instance, distress when a phone is misplaced, frustration and irritability when the internet fails, or the obsessive monitoring of media, and even turning to the internet to explain minor ailments and seek a medical diagnosis. “In my opinion, these responses are analogous to behavioural drive theories. We experience a state of internal imbalance if we’re disconnected. We don’t feel right, something feels wrong inside,” James explains. “There are these unconscious homeostatic mechanisms that then seek to maintain or restore balance through engagement with digitally delivered information.”

For the moment, a significant proportion of research and public awareness campaigns focus on the influence of social media – notably the compulsive need to log on and participate – on self-esteem and cyberbullying. While there may be obvious links between mental health and the growth of social media platforms, some schools of thought point to the overarching trend of immediate information availability.

The onset of the digital era has made it almost second nature to open a weather app in the morning to check the forecast, or scan the reviews of a product on Amazon before purchasing it, for example. Furthermore, hyperconnectivity has been normalised to the extent where a person could be ridiculed or penalised for not answering a digitally delivered message or email within a few minutes, says James. These patterns suggest technology is altering our behaviour on both micro and macro levels.

Another risk of this desire for instant gratification – fuelled by the internet – is mood disorder. “When we’re feeling sad or anxious, our brain starts to seek out information that’s congruent to the mood. In other words, it’s trying to explain why you’re in a bad mood or stressed. So, people go online in search of mood congruent information, and that confirmation bias can be problematic for those with mental health issues,” he notes.

Encouraging digital wellbeing

As psychologists deepen their study of technologically driven habits, being digitally healthy will progressively be promoted alongside diet, sleep and exercise as a major domain. “It's a matter of balance, of keeping everything under control,” says James.

Moreover, while the internet and modern devices are disruptive, they can also be empowering and harnessed for positive purposes. Case in point: telehealth and digitally delivered packages now provide easier platforms to carry out assessments and deliver treatment to a broader segment of the Australian population, according to James.

“Social media has received bad press, but there's emerging research on how to use social media connections to help people with depression, for example. We now have a large body of work on digital mental health strategies, with interventions that can go out to people who otherwise wouldn’t have convenient access to them,” he adds. "Our rapid adoption of telehealth this year is an absolute major advantage."

Two other approaches James recommends to improve digital wellbeing are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and motivational interviewing. ACT is a values-based approach and incorporates six principles, including cognitive defusion and committed action, to handle painful thoughts and experiences in an effort to enhance the quality of life.

With motivational interviewing, the objective is to collaboratively explore the internal motivation needed to resolve ambivalent feelings and insecurities. It’s a practical counselling method often used to address the behaviours that prevent healthier choices.

Ultimately, the steady transformation of the global economy and human communications means technology will only become more integrated into our everyday lives. The fast-paced digital environment can be overwhelming, but a growing number of psychologists and therapists are embracing a range of promising opportunities to reflect, learn and sharpen their skills to truly understand the evolving spectrum of mental health and treat associated disorders.

Continue reading: Breaking down screen addiction one pixel at a time