Digital technology and mental health
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/03/2022
Digital technology has become an essential part of many of our lives, affecting how we work, learn, and socialize. Most people in the United States interact with a smartphone, tablet, computer, smart watch, video game console, voice-activated assistant, or other digital device at least once a day. For many people, digital technology has become such a regular part of daily life that it can feel impossible to live without.
Every technological advancement, from the advent of radio and television to the digital age we live in today, has both positive and negative effects. In many ways, our smartphones and other devices make life easier. However, dependency and overuse may lead to mental health concerns. Let’s take a look at how the internet, social media, and digital devices can affect us psychologically.
The Psychological Effects of the Internet
The internet is a network connecting computers around the world, allowing people to communicate and share information with anyone who has an internet connection. With the internet, people can stay connected and informed. However, too much time on the internet can be harmful for someone’s mental health.
Positive Effects of the Internet
The internet offers an amazing tool for those seeking information and resources regarding their mental health. Some positive aspects of the internet include:
- Making mental health information more accessible: With a simple search, people can use the internet to find information on anything they want. This can be a positive when it comes to finding mental health information regarding disorders, symptoms, and treatment options—as long as it comes from reliable sources.
- Helping people find local therapists: The internet makes it easy for someone to find a therapist near them and connect for a session. Online directories from reliable sources make it easy for people to get started with therapy, especially if they’ve never sought professional mental healthcare before.
- Offering teletherapy: Teletherapy involves online therapy sessions through secure videoconferencing tools. This can make therapy more accessible to those who can’t leave their home, don’t have transportation or childcare, or have busy schedules.
- Connecting people with online support groups: The internet makes it easier to find and connect with others who have similar life experiences. This can help provide validation to people that there are others like them and reduce the stigma of discussing and seeking treatment for mental health.
- Providing free or low-cost mental health apps: For those who may not be able to afford therapy, mental health apps can help people receive help quickly at little to no cost. Some apps offer helpful resources, such as videos for guided meditation, while others use artificial intelligence to simulate text conversations to help people apply cognitive behavioral therapy principles.
Negative Effects of the Internet
There are many ways that the internet can pose a risk to someone’s mental health. The negative aspects of the internet include:
- Overconsumption of news: The internet can be filled with anxiety-provoking news that can be hard to avoid. Too much news consumption may cause stress and anxiety that is disproportionate to one’s ability to affect or control world events.
- Temptation to self-diagnose: Learning more about mental health online can be beneficial, but it comes with a risk: the temptation to self-diagnose. Jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst-case scenario about one’s health based on googled symptoms may only cause increased stress and anxiety.
- Distribution of false, dangerous, inappropriate, or unhelpful material: Using the internet can put someone at risk of seeing false, unhelpful, or even dangerous information. This might include harmful dieting tips that promote eating disorders, information about how to overdose, violent sexual content, hateful rhetoric, illegal activities, and other dangerous material.
- Greater accessibility to addictive behaviors: The internet can make it easier to participate in addictive behaviors, such as online shopping, gaming, and gambling.
- Greater susceptibility to scams and frauds: From pop-ups to phishing emails to malware, the internet is full of people trying to scam and defraud others. People who fall victim to identity theft and other frauds often suffer negative psychological effects, such as an increase in anxiety1. They may also suffer additional stress and grief in having to deal with whatever was stolen in the scam, often resulting in financial loss, legal trouble, or other problems.
Does the Internet Cause Mental Illness?
The internet itself does not cause mental illness. It might be a factor contributing to the decline of someone’s mental health, or it might exacerbate an existing mental health condition. However, experts continue to research the potential harm it may have on our health.
Pros and Cons of Social Media on Mental Health
Social media involves internet-based websites and applications that offer a platform for users to share information, create, and interact with one another. Some of the most popular social media platforms today are Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok.
There are many benefits to social media spaces, such as offering internet users a virtual community where they can have conversations and form connections. However, too much time on social media may lead to unhealthy comparisons, addictive behaviors, and other harmful consequences.
Psychological Benefits of Social Media
Social media allows communities to form around similar interests without geographical boundaries. This leads to several benefits when it comes to mental health, including:
- Decreased mental health stigma: Many people turn to social media to have discussions about mental health and therapy. This can help decrease harmful stigma against mental health and lead to more people receiving the help they need.
- Popularization of positive mental health movements: Many mental health movements are popular on social media, such as self-care and body positivity. Viewing this type of content can have a positive influence on someone’s mental health.
- Creating communities of support: Social media offers a resource for people who are struggling with mental health disorders to find support. Some individuals aren’t diagnosed until later in life, such as with late diagnosis ADHD or autism, and finding a support group can reduce feelings of isolation.
- Connecting with family and friends: Family and friends make up an important part of someone’s support system. Social media has allowed people to stay connected and involved in their loved ones’ lives, which has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Social Media Can Harm Mental Health
Despite its benefits, social media can also do real harm to someone’s mental health, especially if it is overused. Some of the potential dangers of social media include:
Cyberbullying & Violence
Social media creates a new environment for bullying and threats of violence to thrive. Some bullies take to social media to continue bullying someone they were already bullying in person at school or work. Others use the anonymity granted by many social media platforms to bully, harass, threaten, or intimidate people they’ve never met, from celebrities to journalists to other anonymous users.
A form of bullying unique to online culture is trolling2, in which a person is deliberately hostile or inflammatory. Often, there is a performative aspect to trolling, in which the person engaging in the behavior hopes to be seen and praised by others who may share similar interests or values. People who troll may implement manipulative behaviors, such as gaslighting, to thwart people who attempt to engage with them with honest sincerity.
Some instances of bullying online escalate to threats of violence. Doxxing, the intentional act of releasing someone else’s private information on the internet, can put people in real danger. It is an unfortunate reality that social media can provide a space for malicious actors to coordinate acts of violence in the real world.
Comparison & Perfectionism
Social media creates an incentive for people to post versions of life that are more polished, positive, and even “perfect.” Many posts, pictures, videos, and live streams that feel authentic actually have more in common with reality TV than real life. Much of social media is performative, but that doesn’t stop people from feeling the pressure to conform their lives to other people’s carefully curated highlight reels.
The culture of comparison and perfectionism on social media can have devastating effects for mental health. Seeing edited images of bodies that enforce unrealistic beauty standards can cause people to develop eating disorders or other self-harm habits. Some people may experience increased stress over the fear of missing out or the need to perform a certain version of their own life online.
On social media, it’s easy to fall victim to malicious algorithms3 that intentionally manipulate users’ moods in a number of ways. Some purposefully stoke anger to boost engagement; others intentionally cause low self-esteem in order to sell products to “fix” one’s deficiencies. Some algorithmic social media platforms feed users a steady stream of bad news that may lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression.
It’s also tempting to turn to social media to manipulate your own emotions. Some people instinctively grab their phone when they feel lonely or stressed. Others numb uncomfortable feelings by endlessly consuming content, contributing to dissociation and depression.
One of the biggest disadvantages of social media is that most platforms allow disinformation on a variety of subjects to run rampant. This can be harmful or even dangerous when it comes to mental health. When social media influencers spread misinformation, whether accidentally or intentionally, or otherwise mislead their followers, it can prevent people from getting the mental healthcare they truly need.
Effects of Technology on Mental Health
Advantages of Using Digital Devices
Digital devices have become a regular part of daily life, with most of us carrying a smartphone or other device with us wherever we go. The added convenience of digital devices can be beneficial to our health in a number of ways, including:
- Staying connected to family, friends, and social circles
- Making work easier with the ability to jump on phone calls, video calls, and communicate through email and task-management platforms
- Accessing the world’s information for free at the drop of a hat with search engines like Google, Bing, or Yahoo
- Managing other technological devices with ease, such as house lights, thermostats, and security systems
- Measuring physical and mental health, including heart rate, steps, and sleep cycle, with health apps on smartphones or watches
How Digital Devices Can Harm Our Health
Our reliance on digital devices can also come with consequences to our health. Overuse of digital devices can cause harm by:
- Upsetting work/life balance: Many people struggle to set clear boundaries between work and home, especially if their work is concerned with or reliant on digital devices. Work/life balance has been even more difficult for people to protect during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people have transitioned to working from home. Without clear boundaries, “working from home” can quickly transform into “living at work.”
- Causing physical pain: Overusing smartphones or other digital devices can cause or exacerbate back pain, neck pain, headaches, and eye strain. It can also contribute to a more sedentary lifestyle. Consistent or chronic pain can harm people both physically and mentally.
- Disrupting rest: Not taking breaks from digital devices can lead to a feeling of always being “on” or available to others, making it difficult to rest. Additionally, too much screen time can result in insomnia due to the effects of blue light4 from screens.
- Worsening existing mental health conditions: Bad digital habits like constantly checking emails or doomscrolling5 can contribute to or exacerbate anxiety, depression, addiction, and stress.
- Increasing isolation: People with an unhealthy reliance on digital devices may struggle to be present with others in their daily lives. They may avoid opportunities for socializing in order to stay online. This can lead to an increase in loneliness and isolation.
Find a Therapist
If you find yourself struggling with your mental health and believe digital technology may be fueling your symptoms, you’re not alone. A professional therapist can help you establish a healthier relationship with the internet, social media, and digital devices. Find a therapist near you today.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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