Are we sleepwalking into a digital mental health crisis?

Digital mental health

In today’s world, many people work, play, learn, and even find love online. Yet, for all the benefits that our digital world brings, there has been growing concern in recent years that our online lives could be doing more harm than good. Does online connectivity remain the empowering force it was hailed as when it emerged over 20 years ago? Or is now the time to address the ‘e-elephant’ in the room: is digital technology damaging our lives?

To try and uncover the truth, King’s experts have been exploring the power and perils of digital technology.

Using digital technology to reduce social isolation and combat stigma

The Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience’s (IoPPN) Dr Juliana Onwumere has found that getting people to go online has helped reduce feelings of social isolation, saying that ‘being online is often an extremely valuable experience for many people affected by mental illness because they can chat openly on social forums and share their feelings with fellow sufferers.’

‘Connecting up in this way has helped this neglected but hugely valuable group of carers. If a family member suffers from psychosis it’s much harder to talk about than a physical illness – it’s stigmatising, and families can be incredibly isolated.’

Let's not let mobile phones become our child's best friend

However, Dr Louise Arseneault, Professor of Developmental Psychology at King’s IoPPN, has concerns regarding the potential downside of digital technologies: ‘A global aim should be to look at how new technologies are affecting social relationships and whether they’re leading to loneliness and isolation. We need to make sure that mobile phones and tablets do not become children’s best friends.’

‘Bullying online is often linked to other forms of victimisation which have a cumulative impact on mental health,’ she says. ‘These include problems at school, at home and in their peer group.’

Dr Arseneault warns that her previous research has found negative effects of bullying are felt by people 40 years later: ‘people who were bullied in childhood had poorer mental and physical health at 50.’

Using data to improve our mental health

Despite these concerns, digital devices have become essential tools for navigating everyday life, and digital data is increasingly being used to find out more about us, allowing businesses to market specific goods and services to us on how best to monitor health conditions.

Professor Matthew Hotopf, also of the IoPPN, says analysing this data reveals a great deal about our health: how much we move, sleep and interact with others, at a level of detail which was previously impossible. He is leading a global project with the aim of building wearable devices to monitor patients.

‘With illnesses like depression, it’s hard to track minor changes in the condition. Combining information from wearable devices that track physical activity, sleep and heart function, as well as information about how sociable an individual is, could help detect whether someone is starting to relapse,’ says Professor Hotopf.

Where do you stand on the debate about digital technology and mental health? Tweet us with #ForeverKings to get involved.

An extended version of this article appears in Spring 2017’s In Touch magazine.