Technology and Mental Health

by Daniel Beard, ALMFT

One of the most common questions I get asked as a therapist who works with children is “How much screen time should my kid have?” I have to tell you that is not an easy question to answer. The “right” answer to this question is… it depends. However, something interesting happens when I begin to have this discussion with parents. They are more than happy to put limits on their kids, but have no intention of modeling or limiting themselves when it comes to technology. In full disclosure, this is something I struggle with as well. Therefore, I would like to broaden this discussion to include all of us and how technology affects our mental health.

First, let’s start with what we know. We know that there is a link between increased screen time and anxiety and depression. We also know that having an addiction to the internet can cause changes in the brain making it harder to self-regulate. Now, before you freak out and throw all your electronics away another study showed that people who were active on Facebook had lower depressive symptoms than non-Facebook users. Allowing people to connect regardless of geographical boundaries, or connecting like minded people created a support network. Facebook allows people to feel a part of a community, leading to feeling less depressed and more connected.
There are several themes that we see emerging from this research. Most researchers identify it is not the technology itself that causes problems, but the way we use it. In this way, it is very similar to alcohol. When using it in moderation for most people has little negative impact and sometimes small positive ones. However, overuse can be life-threatening. Technology only amplifies traits that are already inside us. For example, if an individual struggles with gambling, being able to gamble online only intensifies the temptation to gamble, while non-gamblers are less affected.

Another side effect of having more technology in our lives is that we do not get a break. Anxiety and depression can result from being available 24/7. Similar to the anxiety a soldier experiences on the front lines of battle, never knowing when the enemy will attack, I see this pattern play out in families where a couple gets into a fight right before work. In the past, they would each go their separate ways, have time to cool off, and consider the situation. When they return home, they can approach the situation with cooler heads. Now, however, this same couple might continue to snap at each other throughout the day, via text, Snapchat, etc, making both of them exhausted by the time they return home and making it less likely reconciliation will happen. A similar pattern can emerge when families (whether couples, siblings, or parent-child) communicate with each other all day either via text, Snapchat, or Facebook Messenger, and when they meet in person there is nothing to talk about. This can lead to feelings about the relationship being boring, or not feeling cared about by the other person.

This leaves us with the question, what do we do about technology when it comes to our mental health? One of my core goals in the therapy room is to empower people to proactively respond to circumstances, rather than being reactionary to them. Some ancient Greek wisdom can help here—everything in moderation. I would encourage you to come up with a plan on how to approach your technology (make sure that it is realistic). Here are the steps I tell my clients to use when creating their plans. (1) The plan can be as tightly or loosely structured as you want, based on what is realistic for you and what you need. (2) Base the plan on your/the family’s values. Some families are more into technology than others and that is okay. (3) Make sure there are scheduled downtimes, be that around mealtimes or the hour before bed. (4) If you have a partner or older kids living with you, talk to them and get some input when creating the plan. Set boundaries around how often and when communication will happen through technology. For example, don’t text each other throughout the day unless there is an urgent need. This will create a priority for connecting face to face. (5) Finally pay attention to your inner parts and how you are feeling. The plan needs to be flexible. We don’t create a plan and then never change it. This plan is meant to support you and your mental health. Sometimes life requires different things from us and the structure of the plans needs to be adjusted. Maybe you are in a season of life where you need a little more screen time, maybe you need a little less.

Being aware and proactive in your approach to technology will allow you a sense of security when it comes to your mental health. An approach of intentional moderation will not only help you but will model for those around you how they should incorporate technology into their lives. This approach should leave you feeling more positively connected to the important people in your life.

Daniel sees clients out of the Yorkville office

1 Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. Emotion, 18(6), 765–780.

2 Wilmer, H. H., Hampton, W. H., Olino, T. M., Olson, I. R., & Chein, J. M. (2019). Wired to be connected? Links between mobile technology engagement, intertemporal preference and frontostriatal white matter connectivity. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 14(4), 367–379. Doi:10.1093/scan/nsz024

3 Brailovskaia, J., & Margraf, J. (2016). Comparing Facebook users and Facebook non-users: Relationship between personality traits and mental health variables—An exploratory study. PLoS ONE, 11(12). https:search.ebscohost.comlogin.aspxdirect=true&db=psyh&AN=2016-60481-001&site=ehost-live