We love to put things in boxes. Broccoli goes in the good box. Cake goes in the bad box. Water is in the good box. Soda is in the bad box. Yoga? Good box. Netflix? Bad box. We feel guilty about ‘bad box’ things, and proud of ‘good box’ things.
It makes sense to put technology in the “bad” box. However, the box mentality is a bit restricted: whether something is good or bad doesn’t necessarily depend on the thing, but on how much of thing, and in what way you use the thing.
When it comes to technology, especially phones, we need to recognize both the detrimental effects technology has had on mental health, but also the potential of tech to powerfully impact wellness for the better — the answer is not to resort back to an agrarian society and hear from your friends via carrier pigeon.
We need to explore the ways in which technology can be used to mitigate its own damage. But more than that, we need to figure out how technology can go beyond merely fixing things to making things extraordinarily better.
Technology, used right, has multiple benefits — and some are already being utilized.
1. Technology is Neutral
In a systematic review on barriers to young people getting help in Australia, the number one barrier was the stigma associated with having a mental health issue. Digital health initiatives, like mental health chatbots, can remove the embarrassment from getting help. An AI psychologist may come in the form of an app or an add-on, and may have natural conversation options or provides mental health activities. A chatbot is less intrusive than going to a human, and also won’t judge their client. Sometimes it can be much easier to talk to a bot.
Another major barrier uncovered by the research was “confidentiality and trust” — young people were worried about breaches of confidentiality, judgment, or even just having a lack of familiarity. Using technology to address mental health means that people can share intimate details about themselves without fear that their trust will be broken, or that they’ll face judgement or criticism.
2. Technology Is Preventative
A study led by the World Health Organization estimated that the global cost of mental health treatment and health outcomes in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030 is around a trillion US dollars every year. And depression in particular is on the rise, increasing by a whopping 18% between 2005 and 2015.
Reactive measures to this crisis are not feasible — we need quick, effective, preventative measures. A preventative measure can analyze risk factors and take steps to prevent future issues. For example, a mental health app that tracks exposomic factors (exposomic meaning everything about a person that isn’t purely genetic) will be able to direct people to individually tailored programs that can increase resilience before anything ever happens.
Another significant barrier in Gulliver, Griffiths, & Christensen’s (2010) research is mental health literacy — young people often didn’t realize their negative emotions exceeded the normal range. Technology in the form of preventative health apps may have the capability to recognize the state of a person’s mental health, and let them know what steps to take before it becomes more serious.
3. Technology Is Accessible
Many people live an inconvenient distance from their nearest mental health professionals. Telehealth and digital health have gained traction as viable alternatives, which alleviate the difficulty of getting help in remote areas. Virtual AI mental health coaches can be reached at any time of day or night, anywhere in the world.
Online forums have also begun to thrive as places where people can rally around a similar issue. It makes community accessible when it might not otherwise be available. Young people may stand to benefit the most from these platforms — children and young adults are native to the digital landscape and more comfortable with using technology to create connections and solutions.
4. Technology Is Precise
Some technological innovations can provide much more exact and detailed analysis than a regular ol’ human. Consider fMRI machines, brain scanners, devices to measure your blood sugar level. But technology can do more than analyze physical states — it can measure and intervene in mental states. A digitally delivered mental health assessment has the potential to precisely understand an individual, particularly if the platform has the capacity to continually monitor over a long-time span, like months or years.
5. Technology Is Inclusive
Universities are beginning to record their lectures, allowing students to move through content at their own pace. This benefits students who have dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD). Recorded content can be watched at home — increasing the access for disabled students, and low socioeconomic students who may have to travel long distances or have higher work hours and miss class.
The good news for the mental health side of things: students with mental health struggles can make their content work around their particular difficulties. This is just one example of many initiatives that are inclusive of people with mental health struggles.
Technology has radical power to reshape the human experience, but, like the humble hammer, whether that reshaping is destructive or productive depends on how you swing it. And, remember, technology is a supplement, not a replacement for human contact. Used in the right ways, technology can break down barriers between people, and help our communities thrive.