Modern technology and mental health

Can smartphones and social media encourage symptoms of anxiety and depression? We take a closer look and offer advice on how to step away from your screen.

Dr Sue Peacock is a Consultant Health Psychologist at BMI The Saxon Clinic. She shares her experience of the way that technology and social media can impact mental health, as well as offering tips on how to ‘digitally declutter’.

Whether we like it or not, technology has an increasing role in our lives. And while many aspects of modern technology are amazing, access to a 24/7 society can take its toll.

For some people, being constantly connected can cause psychological issues such as expectation of instant gratification, distraction, narcissism, sleep issues, stress, even anxiety and depression.1,2

Hands up if you find yourself worrying over not getting a prompt reply to your latest WhatsApp or text message?

Or are you constantly checking Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to see what your friends are up to and how many likes your last post received?

If you have raised your hand, you are not alone. These are issues experienced by an increasing number of the people I see in my clinic.

How does technology affect mental health?

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Some studies have shown a link between high use of social media and symptoms of anxiety and depression.1

Other studies have linked increased screen time (not only social media) to negative effects on mental health.

However, opinions are divided and more research is needed before we can reach a definitive answer.3

Still, I find that more and more people are coming to me with symptoms related to their use of technology. I have found that there are a few common ways in which it can affect people’s mental wellbeing.

Anxiety and depression

If you misread a person’s feelings or take something out of context, or if someone does the same to you, it can make you feel anxious.

This happens more commonly online than face to face because text speak, Facebook posts and so on do not convey the nuances of human communication, such as tone of voice or facial gestures.

If you’re thinking and worrying excessively about what you’ve written or who has or hasn’t liked or commented on your post, this can lead to anxiety.4

There is also the fact that social media can become a platform for various forms of disrespect, which can lead to low self-esteem, low confidence, anxiety and depression.2

Impulsivity and impatience

When we post online, for example to Facebook, it reinforces our need for instant, approving feedback.

This doesn’t happen in the real world, consequently we become more inpatient, frustrated and anxious.2

Sleep issues

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In my clinic, I see many people with sleep issues where during our consultation it becomes apparent that technology has a role in their distress.

If you sleep with your phone nearby, subconsciously you are expecting a message, be it a text or Facebook notification, so your sleep will be lighter. This causes hypervigilance, which is where you are feeling alert, tense and on guard while you should be sleeping.

The light that is emitted from phones can also be problematic because it interferes with your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle and supresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. This convinces your body you need to stay awake for now.5

Even low-level artificial light, such as from TV or computer screens, can disrupt our circadian rhythms, which can have negative effects including anxiety and depression.6

What is my circadian rhythm?

Put simply, this is a 24 hour clock in your brain that helps you to feel awake or sleepy at the right times.

A disrupted circadian rhythm can lead to real problems with sleeping well.7



Top tips to help you digitally declutter

If you are constantly changing your Facebook profile picture or getting upset with fewer than 50 likes on Instagram, it may be time to reflect and reconsider your behaviour.

If you think that the time you spend using technology and social media is having a negative effect on your sleep or on your mental health, you might want to try a ‘digital declutter’.

This doesn’t have to mean stopping your use altogether; you could aim to cut down, or even just try to be more conscious or mindful of how much time you are spending online.

These tips should help to get you started.

  • Delete any apps and remove or unfollow friends and accounts that make you feel bad, sad, drained, overwhelmed, stressed or generally uncomfortable. One of my patients did this and described it as an 'instant relief'.
  • Unsubscribe from as many email newsletters as possible. The fewer emails coming in, the easier it is to manage them.
  • Turn off your notifications and sounds so you’re not distracted. Research suggests that once distracted it takes on average 23-25 minutes to return to what you were doing previously.8
  • Remember, talking over an issue face to face still remains the most efficient and successful way to resolve a problem.
  • Take a social media sabbatical or have a digital detox, even if it’s just for a few hours a day. Spend this time relaxing or doing something you love that doesn’t involve a screen.
  • If your sleep is affected, there are free apps available that will change the light on your screen depending on the time of day, which could strengthen your sleep/wake cycle.
  • It’s also a good idea to turn off all devices an hour before you go to bed, which will give your body a chance to wind down. A sleep mask can help too.

If you feel like modern technology is affecting your quality of life, it’s time to seek help. Speak to your GP or get in touch directly to book an appointment with a psychologist.

To find out more call us on 0808 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.

Sources
1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5904786/
2https://www.anxiety.org/strong-online-social-media-identity-can-lead-to-anxiety
3https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/screen-time-and-childrens-mental-health-what-does-evidence-say
4https://adaa.org/social-media-obsession
5https://www.sleep.org/articles/is-your-smartphone-ruining-your-sleep/
6https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/
7https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/what-circadian-rhythm
8https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf

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