Technology holds power to hinder, help mental health

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By Rae Jefferson | News Editor

It’s an undeniable fact that technology runs the average college student’s life – and it’s having an impact on their mental health.

Dr. James Roberts, Ben H. Williams professor of marketing at Paul L. Foster Campus for Business and Innovation, said the nature of modern connectivity dictates how college students interact with technology, especially cellphones.

“It doesn’t take a genius to see people are using [technology] all the time,'” Roberts said. “It’s almost not even a choice anymore.”

On one hand, technology offers many resources to help people cope with mental illnesses. Smartphone apps, online articles, internet support groups and video counseling can provide assistance and community to those who are suffering.

This semester, Baylor Counseling Services implemented Therapist Assisted Online (TAO), which integrates technology with treatment. Dr. Jim Marsh, director of Counseling Services, said the program allows staff to effectively treat students while maximizing the clinic’s manpower.

“It comes back to this big picture for the counseling center – what are some creative things we can do to help students and meet students where they are,” Marsh said. “The traditional counseling model has been a one-hour sit-down, but this is something different.”

Marsh said TAO is a combination of self-help resources, which one could find online, and video therapy sessions facilitated by a certified counselor, something that is not as readily available. Patients receive weekly or bi-weekly online homework assignments and video-chat with a counselor from a computer, tablet or smartphone.

The program is designed to assist students with mild to moderate depression or anxiety via 20 to 30 minute video sessions. Because these students don’t require as much monitoring as those with more severe conditions, shorter therapy sessions fit easily into students’ busy schedules and allow counselors to see more patients.

“It’s a good, natural fit,” Marsh said.

But technology isn’t always beneficial for mental health.

Using it too often can easily cause conflict for college students, especially when they are neglecting responsibilities or fail to engage with others in group settings because they’re so wrapped up in their phones, Roberts said.

“It’s always a source of friction,” Roberts said. “We’re together, but we’re not really sharing in our experience because we’re caught up in technology.”

Research conducted by Roberts and Dr. Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing at Paul L. Foster Campus for Business and Innovation, looked at the effects of phubbing, or phone snubbing, on romantic relationships.

Phubbing involves an individual feeling neglected by someone because of a cellphone and is often linked to a strong dependence on technology. Rogers and David found that people in relationships who feel phubbed are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

“Momentary distractions by one’s cellphone during time spent with a significant other likely lowers the significant other’s satisfaction with their relationship, and could lead to enhanced feelings of depression and lower well-being of that individual,” David said in a Baylor Media Communications press release about the research.

Addiction, which is closely linked to mental illnesses, is characterized by performing a behavior despite being aware of its negative consequences, and can range from substances to technology, Roberts said.

Although he bought his first smartphone only a month ago, Roberts has studied cellphone addiction for about seven years and said college students are more likely to experience this form of addiction than older generations of phone-users.

“All addictions have negative side effects, and cellphones or smartphones are no exception,” Roberts said.

On average, college students use social media for six hours everyday, Roberts said. The warning-signs for technology addiction are, on a basic level, the same as those for drug or alcohol additions, he said.

“[Doctors] look at the same criteria when they’re trying to diagnose a substance addiction as they would a behavioral addiction,” Roberts said.

The core components of addiction include behavior that is integrated into one’s daily life, whether it brings pleasure, if increased performance is required to maintain enjoyment, if stopping causes frustration and withdrawal, if it creates conflict and if relapse occurs when trying to stop the behavior, Roberts said.

“When you talk about them and they you look at your behavior as it relates to your smartphone use, you kind of go, ‘Wow, I may be addicted,'” Roberts said.

Additionally, Marsh said smartphones can negatively impact quality of sleep and ability to connect socially, both of which can have negative effects on mental health. Simple actions like putting phones away while sleeping or limiting usage can help.

Ultimately, both Roberts and Marsh said it’s important to remember that technology is not bad when used in moderation. Students who fear they may have an addiction to it can ask others to keep them accountable or look into apps that limit usage of social media on computers and mobile devices.

“I call it, ‘Using technology against itself,'” Roberts said.