Technology is fundamentally changing the ways we live our lives. It has proliferated into every aspect of our civilization and it influences every person regardless of age, gender, or profession. Recent technological growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and we are still trying to figure out how that will shape the future. That raises an interesting question though, just how much does technology affect our mental health and is it for the better or to our detriment?

The best way to evaluate this question is to look at some of the latest research that is being done. Let’s take a look at what benefits and risks are taking place due to the development and use of technology.

Facebook and social media

This is arguably the category that affects the most people in modern society, especially children and young adults. Social media is easy to use and allows us to connect with people all over the world. This sharing of ideas and beliefs can help build a society and constantly reconnect us with those who share our interests. It allows for people to build local and distant support structures that can help reduce stress and depression as well. According to a study by Dr. Larry D. Rosen, social media provides a safe place to learn socialization for children as well as a powerful tool for teaching and engaging young students.

Along with the benefits come some very real risks if the overuse of social media occurs. Teens who overuse Facebook were found to be more narcissistic, while also showing more signs of other disorders like antisocial behaviors and aggressive tendencies. Excessive use has also been tied to greater levels of anxiety, depression, and makes people more susceptible to future mental health problems. Finally, social media perpetuates “FOMO” or fear of missing out – a recent development where children and adults feel pressured to share every experience or be afraid of missing some crucial social moment.

Other peer-to-peer networks

Researchers at MIT and Northwestern University have also developed a new tool that helps those with anxiety and depression. This crowd-sourced tool helps create a support network among its users, but it also teaches them cognitive reappraisal – the ability to identify self-blaming negative thought patterns and then how to cast the events in a different light. The tool’s purpose is to expose these patterns to the users and then allow them to apply the techniques to future events, and even teach others.

While this new tool has been shown to be effective, it has only been shown to outperform conventional self-help techniques. It is unclear if it has long-term benefits as it is common with technological self-help programs to experience a high turnover after the first few months.

Smartphone apps

There are thousands of apps out there for your smartphone ranging from games to flashlights. This technology also provides over 800 applications dedicated to the physical and mental health arena. A recent literature review showed that these apps can provide a cheap, effective healthcare experience while significantly improving the treatment accessibility for the average person.

The newness of this technology lends it to criticism. There is little scientific evidence to vouch for the effectiveness of these applications and a lot of apps are merely money grabs. The general population doesn’t know how to evaluate these apps quite yet, so it will take some time and governmental guidance before they become commonplace and reliable. These apps can also incorporate some popular processes and techniques, but too often lack insight and guidance from healthcare professionals.

Wearable tech

Wearable devices often look like they are straight out of a sci-fi flick from head/wrist bands to full jackets, but they can have a significant impact on your mental health. They allow deeper insight into a person’s mental and physical state and emotions by tracking a plethora of physiological conditions like sleep patterns, breathing, heart rate, and skin conductance. Furthermore, another study suggests that wearables can track movement in patients and that, by analyzing their rest patterns, more accurate drug prescriptions could be advised based on their daily patterns.

The technology doesn’t have much supporting data or analytical capabilities as of yet. Since this is a new concept, it is difficult to accurately interpret the data. Development could be a challenge because the data will also be somewhat unique to the person since conditions vary widely across people so it is unlikely to useful or reliable anytime soon.

Big data

A new study has been funded that uses big data to reclassify psychiatric patients from the old Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) labeling system. The reason for this is because mood disorders are quite prevalent, but the treatment for them is less than 25% effective. This initiative will focus on regrouping patients based on in-depth data profiles developed from big data sources that include clinical, environmental, and genetic data, just to name a few. It is the hope that this new methodology and approach will allow for the creation of a powerful visual tool that will cluster patients with mood disorders, thereby providing valuable insight to clinicians.

Machine learning

Most conditions are easier to manage the earlier they are discovered in a person’s life. That is why researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have evaluated the use of machine learning, a subfield of computer science that gives computers the ability to learn without explicit programming. This machine learning technique is used in combination with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data in an attempt to predict the risk of teenagers developing various mental disorders, specifically depression and bipolar disorder. The experiment had promising results by accurately identifying those who were healthy versus at-risk. It is expected to yield further relationships and may affect the development of early treatment and preventative efforts.

What effects has technology had on your mental health?

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