Digital technology and mental health

Overusing digital technologies may affect areas like sleep, concentration, learning and relationship behaviors.

Although digital technologies can provide young people with many benefits, many adults have expressed concerns about some kids’ online behaviors, safety and privacy – as well as the amount of time that young people spend with their phones and other electronic media. Those who care about the well-being of kids may also be interested in exploring how the overuse of digital technology may negatively affect the mental health of young people (and adults).

Michigan State University Extension recently provided a webinar titled This is your brain online: The impact of digital technology on mental health. The webinar featured Scott Becker, director of the MSU Counseling Center, who shared research findings of ways that the overuse of digital technology may affect brain development, sleep, mood, concentration, memory, learning and relationship behaviors. According to Dr. Becker, university counseling centers across the country have seen dramatic increases in the numbers of students seeking help with serious mental health issues. While there may be many explanations related to these increases (for example, there’s less stigma about seeking mental health services), Dr. Becker stressed that the overuse of social media, video games and other digital technologies may be contributing to these increases. Following are highlights from some of the areas that Dr. Becker discusses in the webinar:

  • The overuse of digital technology in all its forms (such as phones, tablets, laptops, game consoles and television sets) can negatively affect the quantity and quality of our sleep. This may be due to frequent interruptions during sleep from incoming texts or social media notifications. It’s also related to ways that our biological and nervous systems react to the light levels produced by these devices – particularly when we use them before bedtime. Our bodies can also react to the electromagnetic signals used with cell phones. Dr. Becker stressed that sleeping with a cell phone within reach means that our bodies are also taking in these signals in ways that can negatively affect the quality of sleep. By changing habits related to sleeping near cell phones and using digital devices before bedtime, we may see important improvements in our sleep, which is critical to our overall health and well-being.
  • Being interrupted frequently is a common experience for many of us in our daily lives but frequent and ongoing interruptions are even more common for people who are heavy users of digital devices. Some research has shown that the excessive use of texting and time spent online contributes to mental fatigue and increased problems with memory, attention, concentration and learning – particularly learning at a deep level. It may take us longer to carry out tasks (such as homework or a work project), and we may make more mistakes in the process. The ways in which we take in information on the Internet is different from “traditional” types of reading. When we take in information online, we encounter a variety of visual and auditory information (words, videos, hyperlinks, ads, etc.). As a result, we read in a nonlinear way and may not process the information as deeply.
  • Some research is showing that an overuse of digital technology lowers our levels of empathy. Although technology can enhance some of our connections with one another, it’s important to balance the online aspects of our relationships with opportunities for face-to-face connections. When we connect in-person, we can slow down, have deeper and more nuanced interactions with fewer interruptions, and more clearly experience each other’s perspectives and emotions. While some people’s online interactions feature a lot of focus on “me,” spending time with others while offline can offer more focus on “we” and can deepen our levels of empathy and compassion.

Although the overuse of digital technology can have negative impacts for people of any age, children and adolescents may be especially vulnerable to its effects given their critical stages of brain development. The positive news is that our brains have a powerful ability to change and adapt as a result of our experiences. Adults can find ways to help young people (and themselves) find a balance between screen time and the kinds of activities that can help them reconnect with their emotions, their bodies and other people.

Check out the recording of This is your brain online: The impact of digital technology on mental health to learn more about what Dr. Becker shared. In addition, you can register for another webinar that MSU Extension is providing on February 11, 2016, titled Finding the balance: Strategies for using digital technology in healthy ways. During that webinar, Dr. Becker will provide a deeper look at the implications of the research, along with a variety of strategies that can be used to promote the healthy use of digital technology.

Related Articles