How Does Reliance on Technology Affect Our Mental Health?

You are in line at the supermarket. It’s a long line filled with many different people. Were you to to analyze the folks to your right and left you would quickly determine that they represent a wide range of occupational and personal backgrounds. Grocery lines, after all, are great equalizers.

And yet, despite your diverse surroundings, everyone around you is doing the exact same thing: staring at their phone. The average American adult spends almost five hours a day looking at their phone.

That adds up to almost 70 complete days over the course of a year. One-fifth of your life is spent staring at a glowing rectangle. Do we really know what all of that screen time is doing to us?

In this article, we take a look at how technological reliance is impacting our mental health.

Negative Impacts of Digital Technology

It’s important to keep in mind that the way we use digital technology today is very new. Smartphones didn’t even exist in their current form until 2007 when the first iPhone launched. We don’t know exactly what the long-term effects of digital technology use are because we haven’t even reached a long-term time frame yet.

That said, there are many troubling statistics concerning digital technology reliance that bear consideration.

Tech reliance has been shown to increase rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. These effects are experienced most prominently in younger users. In the last twenty years instances of children who report major depression have gone up by 52%.

Social media and smartphones don’t get all the blame. This statistic may owe in part to the fact that people are more willing to admit to depression or anxiety than they used to be— during that same time period, the stigma surrounding mental health challenges has gone down considerably.

Still, it’s troubling. Studies indicate that children who spend more than three hours a day online are considerably more likely to experience mental health challenges.

Digital technology can also be addictive. Social media, or even just regular screen time releases a dopamine response in the brain. This makes you feel good, but it also makes you crave more dopamine. Like most sources of addiction, the more you use screen time for pleasure, the more your brain will require to produce the original soothing response.

On day one, you may feel relaxed after 20 minutes on Instagram. By day two, you may find that it takes 25 minutes. For many people, this is a dangerous cycle with potentially disastrous impacts on their mental health.

Is Digital Technology the Entertainment Equivalent of Empty Calories?

A study published two years ago suggested that moderate smart device usage was more beneficial than none at all. The study focused on teenagers and indicated that those who spent about one hour a day on their phones had less stress, anxiety, and depression than those who spent no time on a smart device at all.

These findings are interesting in that they support an evidence-based recommendation for appropriate digital technology implementation. So many adults, and particularly parents, want to know how they should be approaching screen time. This may be the answer. By why? What is the benefit that a moderate amount of screen time provides?

Screentime triggers a dopamine response. Dopamine is known as the “feel good,” chemical in your brain. When your brain receives a regular dopamine release it is generally happier, healthier, and less troubled by stress, depression, and anxiety.

Here’s the caveat: constant exposure to a stimulant will reduce its capacity to produce a dopamine response. In other words, the more you use a dopamine trigger—like screen time, the less effective it becomes.

That’s why a little bit of screen time can be good for you, while a lot of screen time produces anxiety and depression.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are other, possibly better ways to tap into the power of your natural brain chemistry.

Relaxation Alternatives

If you’re trying to improve your mental health through natural stimulation, there are lots of techniques you can take—most of which will be more effective and less risky than excessive screen time.

Here are a few healthy habits that you can use to build a sustainable routine.

  • Exercise: Regular exercise or other physical extracurricular activity produces both a serotonin and dopamine response in your brain—chemicals responsible for feelings of peace and relaxation. When people talk about a runner’s high, this is what they mean. Exercise can also have the peripheral benefit of helping you maintain your health. People who are physically comfortable tend to enjoy better mental health than those who are struggling with weight-related illness or health complications.
  • Reading: Reading produces an oxytocin and dopamine response in your brain. Oxytocin is the chemical responsible for creating a sense of connection between you and the outside world. This may be why reading is shown to improve empathy and social consciousness.
  • Spend time outside: Being outside produces a serotonin response in your brain. Serotonin naturally relaxes you and reduces your stress and anxiety.

Psychologists divide happiness into two categories. Hedonic well-being reflects one-off experiences. The happiness you get from scrolling through Instagram for an hour is an example of hedonic well-being. It boosts your mood in the short term but does not contribute to your overall health.

Eudaimonic well-being refers to lifestyle choices that contribute to your overall mental health. These are your habits. Daily choices that contribute to your emotional baseline. Eudaimonic well-being requires more work. You have to be willing to grow and challenge yourself.

However, the benefits are much more significant. Eudaimonic well-being creates a much deeper sense of purpose and self-satisfaction.

Opting for Eudaimonic habits is more conducive to your long-term health. For stable mental wellness, it’s important to consistently choose activities that are good for your mind and your body.