While humanity has always faced a lot of anxiety triggers, it’s a worthwhile argument that technology—particularly smartphones, tablets, video games, and social media—is making anxiety worse. However, this viewpoint doesn’t necessarily endorse the belief that technology is inherently evil, as technology is responsible for some significant developments in our world that make life easier and help people live longer.

We can consider technology like alcohol in a sense: is it inherently wrong? No. But can it be used in harmful, irresponsible ways? Absolutely.

Let’s take a closer look at why scientists and psychologists are concerned about how technology use can exacerbate symptoms in those with depression.

What Types of Technology Have a Negative Affect on Mental Health?

We certainly owe technology a great deal of gratitude for making the mundane tasks of life—laundry, dishes, traveling—far more manageable than they were for our ancestors. Technology has helped free up our time so we can, in theory, have more time for things that give us joy, such as spending time with family and friends. Despite these incredible advances, there are valid reasons to believe that society is collectively less happy than our ancestors. How is this possible?

Certain types of technology, such as video games and smartphones, may worsen depression over time. However, there are many factors at play, such as the amount of time spent on these devices and what they are used for. Generally speaking, long-term screen time isn’t good for our brains and can negatively affect our sleep cycles, which can exacerbate mental health conditions like depression.

Are Some Technological Devices, Like Smartphones, Bad for Mental Health?

Devices themselves are amoral—meaning neither moral nor immoral. As previously stated, it’s all in how we use them.

The smartphone can be credited for helping people stay in touch, with features like text messaging and FaceTime. During the pandemic, these features were especially helpful in keeping friends and family members in touch when face-to-face interaction wasn’t possible. At the same time, this constant connection can turn sour when we feel a certain “separation anxiety” if we have to go without our phones. The need to feel connected to people far away can make it more difficult to connect with people right in front of us. The rush of dopamine that can occur when we see the notification of a new text message can become a replacement for the positive feelings associated with in-person quality time.

The smartphone, in particular, produces “blue light” that can affect the brain. Intense screen time, especially before bedtime, can activate our brains so that we struggle to “wind down” for sleep. A complete REM cycle is necessary for everyone’s health, regardless of depression. But since one symptom of depression is a lack of energy, disrupted sleep can be catastrophic in our ability to feel positive and function the following day.

How Does Technological Addiction Affect Mental Health?

Technology and internet addiction are real phenomenons. It can happen to anyone, but it’s particularly problematic in adolescents whose brains are still developing. Young people are remarkably impressionable, which makes the impression of a “perfect” life on social media platforms like Instagram fuel unhealthy degrees of comparison with their peers. This false perspective can exacerbate feelings of anxiousness, depression, and social isolation. Worsened degrees of technology addiction can affect the ability to perform well academically and communicate well in person.

What Is the Link Between Social Media Use and Mental Health?

The connection between social media use and worsening mental illness, including depression, is quite strong. Young people may feel tempted to create an online persona separate from their “real life” to be popular. They may experience feelings of jealousy from viewing peers’ postings. It may not seem like a big deal to adults if a particular post doesn’t generate enough views or “likes.” But to younger people, these views and “likes” are essentially “popularity points.”

In addition to fueling insecurities that are already part and parcel of the adolescent experience, social media can stir up feelings of loneliness and isolation if a teen sees pictures of a social event posted by a friend that perhaps they weren’t invited to. In many ways, the same struggles that every teen has faced in the modern age haven’t changed; it’s just the medium of how these struggles present themselves that’s new. But unlike previous generations, in which social gaffes would eventually disappear in the shadows of time, social media has a way of making our worst moments last forever. Understandably, this will fuel symptoms of anxiety and depression in children, teens, and young adults.

Should People With Depression Stop Using Social Media?

Social media is not inherently good or bad; it’s all in how one uses it. Parents may want to instill boundaries around social media usage based on how their child is affected by it. They may also want to consider making their own accounts to “follow” their kids and make sure they are using these apps responsibly. Social media, video games, and other technologies can be used as incentives for finishing homework or chores or rewards for good grades. But parents may also want to remind their kids that these devices can and should be taken away if they see a connection between excessive use and poor academic performance or worsened depression symptoms.

There are many cautions involved with technology use, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop using technology cold turkey. The key is having boundaries placed around it, especially right around bedtime. If nothing else, we highly recommend powering off the devices about an hour before bedtime to prepare your brain and body for restful sleep. If you struggle with putting down your device to focus on “real life” and are concerned you may have an addiction or worsening depression symptoms; we’re here to help. Crownview Co-Occurring Institute in Oceanside, California, has compassionate, licensed, professional staff who can offer a safe, judgment-free space to help you develop practical skills to change your habits and live a healthier life. A combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes can do wonders in managing depression symptoms.

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