Digital technology mental health and wellbeing

[Guest Blog] How digital technology can improve mental health and wellbeing

Author: Terry Freedman

Terry freedman is a freelance ed tech writer and consultant. He blogs at ICT & Computing in Education, and tweets as @terryfreedman.

 

There has been quite a bit of research carried out concerning the effects of technology on health, mental health and wellbeing. Although the picture is not 100% positive, there seems to be more on the credit side of the balance sheet than on the debit side.

Now, the Covid19 pandemic has muddied the waters somewhat. The general view is that since it started, and especially since the advent of lockdowns and social distancing, mental health concerns have been voiced by many people. According to a report by the World Health Organisation in early October 2020:

“… the pandemic is increasing demand for mental health services. Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety. Meanwhile, COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke. People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection  ̶  they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death.”

A natural question to ask, then, might be: so how come technology hasn’t helped? Probably the best answer to that, although it cannot be shown to be absolutely true yet, is that mental health issues may have been worse without the technology we have. So let’s look at the benefits of technology for mental health and wellbeing, as discovered by several respected research organisations.

First, clean technology may have the happy side effect of avoiding mental health issues in the first place. A report by Mckinsey suggests that clean technology has a high potential impact on environmental sustainability, while researchers in the USA and Denmark have found that:

“…people in Denmark who grew up in more polluted areas up to the age of 10 were more likely to develop depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or personality disorder. While US counties with worse air pollution had higher rates of bipolar disorder and depression.”

It should be noted, though, that it’s not necessarily the case that the pollution was the direct cause of the mental health issues. Still, it’s interesting to think that clean technology could potentially help in the area of mental health. Even if the link is tenuous, it’s well-known that air pollution can be highly detrimental to physical health, and therefore wellbeing.

Second, in a research study carried out before the pandemic, Pew Research found that more people thought technology could benefit mental health than harm it. For example, people thought that:

“Digital life links people to people, knowledge, education and entertainment anywhere globally at any time in an affordable, nearly frictionless manner.”

We’ve seen the truth of this during the pandemic, of course, with conferences, events, and a great deal of work moving online.

Third, as far as technology’s potential direct effect on wellbeing and health is concerned, the picture is mostly positive. Artificial Intelligence has sometimes been found to make better or faster predictions than human doctors. Even at the individual level, a plethora of apps and devices now exist that can monitor blood pressure, blood sugar and other functions, thereby providing, in effect, an early warning system of possible illness. Technology has been developed and is being developed that can assist elderly people, or alert others when more direct intervention is required. There has even research suggesting that using VR during lockdown could help to relieve mental anguish in a variety of ways.

It’s important to remember that technology is not inherently beneficial, especially when it comes to children’s wellbeing. Childnet has a useful set of tips for helping children of various ages use technology in a way that will enhance their wellbeing rather than lessen it.

In conclusion, technology has a great deal to contribute to our wellbeing and mental health, notwithstanding the many studies that have demonstrated the negative aspects of too much screen time, social media and other facets of technology use.

 

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Terry Freedman

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant and writer, having had a long career in Education, including teaching, advising schools and inspecting. He publishes the ICT and Computing in Education website at www.ictineducation.org, and the Digital Education newsletter at www.ictineducation.org/diged. You can follow Terry on Twitter @terryfreedman.

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