How many times a day would you say you check your phone? And how many of those times would you say you experience feelings of anxiety? Some would say that these are in direct correlation—but it doesn’t have to necessarily be this way. Every day, a host of new apps and technologies arrive at our fingertips, making our phones (and lives) smarter, faster, and, in theory, better. In the last ten years alone, hundreds of thousands of apps for smartphones have been released, and people have become increasingly dependent on the use of smart devices for daily tasks. As helpful as this has been in many respects, there have also been concerns as to the potential noxious effects of using this much technology. Take, for instance, social media. An activity that some years ago was reduced to meeting others in person and making phone calls on a landline, we suddenly have access to information about millions of people at our fingertips on our devices.
More often than not, we are using social media apps to receive live updates with a simple scroll or engage with notifications in real time with a swipe. It is easy to imagine how we can become overwhelmed simply by the sheer amount of information we are exposed to. Adding to that the propensity for negative comparisons that social media enables as well as an increased exposure to cyberbullying, technology is painted as a villain of our own creation. Indeed, there are many findings that support the idea of social media being detrimental for our mental health, particularly with respect to anxiety and depression. In fact, daily social media use has been associated with an overall greater likelihood to experience anxiety and have an anxiety disorder.1 There have been studies contesting these findings,1 but the plethora of research tilts the balance towards a positive association between social media use and anxiety.
This begs the question, however, of whether technology could be used for good in the mental health space. Despite our heavy diet for social media apps, and the associated potential harmful effects it may have, there is much more to a smartphone than Instagram and Facebook. From apps that aim to connect patients and therapists such as Talkspace, to apps that help you look at your thoughts using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy principles such as Woebot, the emerging mental healthcare technology space is ever growing.2,3,4 Additionally, bringing artificial intelligence (AI) into the field has the potential to completely redefine the way in which mental healthcare services are administered and used—for instance, IBM is in the process of developing a tool which can predict the onset of psychosis with stunning accuracy.2 The current paradigm was built in a world that did not have a fraction of the technology that we have today.5 Hundreds of new tools are available to clinicians, counsellors, and patients alike to not only enhance, but reinvent mental healthcare practice as a whole.2 The goal is not, and should not be, to replace the patient-doctor relationship or the therapeutic process, but rather to augment and improve it.4 This is the opportunity we have before us.
However, as great as the opportunity is, it is important to approach these new tools and techniques objectively. Many apps are released daily, becoming available to the general public without much regulation or scientific evidence to back their efficacy. Specifically with anxiety, many of the apps do not disclose the theoretical foundations on which the intervention is based.6 This is not to mean that the apps could not be helpful for any particular person or that the field of mental health technologies as a whole is not incredibly promising. Rather, we must be smart consumers and always question where the information we are receiving comes from, how accurate it might be, and whether it can actually serve us.
Bringing technology into the field of mental health has the potential to make resources more accessible to the millions of people that might not be able to afford weekly therapy sessions, the people for whom travel to a mental health clinic is not possible, and to the people who might be afraid of the still pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness. Although our current user behaviour with smartphones and similar technologies does expose us to some serious mental health issues, there is definitely a case to be made for the great potential for a mental healthcare revolution that could be brought upon by the use of technology in a clinically-proven, accessible way.
1. Vannucci A, Flannery KM, Ohannessian CM. Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults. J.Affect.Disord. 2017;207 (Complete): 163-166.
2. Lovejoy, CA. Technology and mental health: the role of artificial intelligence. European Psychiatry 2019; 55:1-3.
3. Sucala M, et al. Anxiety: There is an app for that. A systematic review of anxiety apps. Depress. Anxiety 2017;34(6): 518-525.
4. Areán P, Cuijpers P. Technology and mental health. Depress. Anxiety 2017;34(6): 479-480.
5. Ben-Zeev, D. Technology in Mental Health: Creating New Knowledge and Inventing the Future of Services. Psychiatric Services. 2017;68(2):107-108.
6. Ameringen M, et al. There is an app for that! The current state of mobile applications (apps) for DSM‐5 obsessive‐compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and mood disorders. Depress. Anxiety 2017;34(6):526-539
Article Featured in Elemental Issue 3: Anxiety