When it comes to how digital technology influences our wellbeing, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly.
There was a time, not too long ago, when children were told that their eyes would pop out and brains waste away if they watched too much television. It is not very different today. New technologies have arrived, bringing with them new concerns. Are these fears valid? Do the risks outweigh the benefits? Are there ways to offset the adverse effects of technology on our health?
The answers to these questions are not straightforward. Nonetheless, a deep-dive analysis of how digital technologies impact our wellbeing may help clear the fog to a large extent and provide possible solutions.
Technology and wellbeing – what do the trends and statistics indicate?
Worries about the harmful impacts of digital technology have been growing steadily over the past few years. According to The New York Times, people in the Silicon Valley, including many founders, now largely believe that when children use technology, the risk of addiction and arrested development they face is far greater than the learning they receive.
This comes on the heels of a large-scale survey of tech experts, scholars and corporate leaders that US-based Pew Research and Elon University conducted recently. Nearly 32 per cent of the respondents said that digital life would be “more harmful than helpful” to our wellbeing in the next decade. Such concerns were also on display in early 2018 when members of the US Congress questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the social media giant’s impact on public life.
Statistics abound about selfie deaths. According to a worldwide study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, as many as 259 people have died since 2011 while taking selfies. Compulsive video gaming is an equally disconcerting phenomenon. The affliction is so widespread that the WHO has listed ‘gaming disorder’ as a new form of addiction in its latest edition of the ‘International Classification of Diseases’.
Social media seems to pose the biggest threat. Tech tycoon Sean Parker recently said that he and his fellow creators of Facebook never anticipated the consequences of birthing this juggernaut (which has more than 2 billion users today). He admitted that they seemed to have created a monster that’s altering relationships, exploiting vulnerabilities and doing “God knows what” to children’s brains. Indeed, several studies, although limited in scope, indicate how excessive use of Facebook causes stress, mood swings, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, to name just a few problems.
Nevertheless, the alarming statistics and opinions notwithstanding, it may not be wise to disregard the positive effects of technology on our wellbeing. After all, a more informed and sensible approach can go a long way in helping us reap its benefits, while minimising all the associated risks.
With this in mind, it’s probably a good idea to first discuss the pros and cons of technology use in greater detail.
How does technology affect wellbeing?
Research suggests that excessive use of technology may cause physiological, mental and/or emotional problems in both adults and children. Although the effects tend to be more pronounced in those addicted to gaming and social media, too much screen time, whatever the purpose, can be risky too.
Unless you are living under a rock, you cannot escape screens today. From entertainment and shopping to social interactions and work-related communication, we use screens in multiple ways. Small and cross-sectional studies show that long hours in front of screens increase the risk of eye strain, back and neck pains, muscle soreness, carpal tunnel syndrome (weakness and numbness in the hands and wrists) and trigger finger (caused by constant gripping), among other conditions.
Often, concerns about screen time, especially in the case of children and youngsters, are related to the resultant inactivity and sedentary lifestyle. Lack of physical activity is strongly associated with poor mental and physical health, and it is often a risk factor for many lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart ailments. There is also evidence to suggest that screen time can impact sleep quality, increase lethargy and cause chronic fatigue — all of which are risk factors for several mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. However, the jury is still out on whether smart devices and excessive screen time trigger structural changes in our brains.
Many refer to video games as ‘digital heroin’, a nod to one of the most common addictive substances in the world. Like any addiction, excessive gaming can produce considerable distress in personal, social and family life, increase the risk of cognitive impairment, as well as cause sleep and diet-related disorders. A person suffering from ‘gaming disorder’ is also vulnerable to more serious mental health conditions, such as acute loneliness, anxiety and depression.
Social media usage
While social media platforms exist ostensibly to better social connections, they often achieve the opposite, especially if they are used frequently and/or excessively. A large study of US teenagers indicates that adolescents who spend a significant amount of time on social media and smart devices are more likely to report mental health issues compared to those who spend their time on other activities, such as sports, exercise, homework and physical interactions.
While many smaller studies have documented how scrolling through news feeds and timelines create wildly fluctuating levels of stress and mood, other surveys have found out that more than 50 per cent of social media users feel inadequate and envious. Platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, where selfies are a craze, have been shown to encourage narcissism and cause body-image issues. Studies also indicate that such platforms tend to produce superficial relationships and, thus, feelings of isolation and loneliness.
In his bestselling book ‘Everybody lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’, renowned author-researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has postulated that the urge to always present a ‘pretty picture’ of one’s life dulls an individual’s perception of her own self. He says that social media has made us hypocritical, reducing our ability to enjoy life as it happens and remain mindful of the present.
Is moderation the key?
These trends and statistics about the ill-effects of technology do not tell the whole story. A recent UNICEF review of existing research as well as a 2017 Oxford University study of screen-time usage among 120,000 UK-based 15-year-olds imply a more complex relationship between technology and wellbeing.
In the Oxford University study, teenagers who were not heavy users of technology reported better wellbeing after their screen time was increased. In sharp contrast, teenagers who were already heavy users of technology reported a dip in their wellbeing after their screen time was increased. Researchers thus concluded that in the former category, more screen time probably meant better social connections, and in the latter category, technology likely hindered other important activities.
Clearly, there appears to be a tipping point, but the evidence is yet inconclusive. This is perhaps the reason professional advisories about technology usage tend to take a cautious approach, recommending moderation while strongly hinting that, at least for now, we have to rely on our own assessment.
How can technology boost wellbeing?
Although not enough is known at present to say anything authoritatively, evidence does point to the fact that the impact of technology differs from person to person. In other words, technology’s capacity to boost wellbeing is largely a function of what it is used for, how it is used and for how long.
When used responsibly, technology can help us connect positively with others, foster healthy relationships, find answers to questions, increase productivity, help track our fitness, improve our diets, and even better our overall wellbeing. In fact, all the studies that point out the negative aspects of social media use also talk about how social media strengthens relationships and exposes the user to new perspectives, if it is used sensibly. Some researchers have found out that even gaming can be an effective method of relaxation and stress reduction. Several studies have linked moderate gaming to emotional stability, better skill acquisition, cognitive enhancement and other positive outcomes. Notably, the key word here is ‘moderate’.
How can you use technology without risking your wellbeing?
Professionals who deal with people negatively affected by technology often advise ‘digital hygiene’. Here are some ways in which you can practise ‘digital hygiene’:
For more details on our “Effects of Technology on Wellbeing” module and the rest of our extensive library of health and wellbeing modules, you can book a demo with Earthmiles to learn more about how our software platform can help your business.
Originally written 6th December 2018