While one hand is holding a phone, the other is distractedly tapping on the computer keyboard – and perhaps the television is on in the background. This scene is one that we have now become obliviously acclimated to. Screens are everywhere. How often do we truly stop to recognize the impact they have on our mental health?
A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, led by neuroscientist Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, is taking a different approach in trying to understand the relationship between screen time and stress. Most studies previously conducted look at the effects of screen time with a focus on online gaming and gambling, TV, or internet addiction. The relationship to specific types of mental disorders, such as that between depression and social networking, has become a common conversation. Khalili-Mahani’s study uses a holistic approach to analyze the interrelation between different technologies used by the same person.
“It’s a post-modern study, the relation between everything, as opposed to cause and effect between one and the other,” said Khalili-Mahani, who is also an affiliate assistant professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia. “We wanted to understand how the same person is using television and a smartphone. We are showing these interrelations between these technologies and this is allowing us to somehow zoom in on devices or on usages that are most likely to be associated with mental health or physical difficulties.”
The results reveal that all the different aspects of stress, such as financial or relationship difficulties, seem to be higher in individuals also suffering from screen addiction.
Moreover, the study shows that age and gender are key factors. Unsurprisingly, the effect on adults using social networks is not as significant as the younger generations or even women, said Khalili-Mahani.
“Everybody uses technology for finding information or working,” said Khalili-Mahani. “About 30 per cent of the population seems to be addicted to screens, in the sense that they are spending more than 8 hours of their daily time on the internet. Twenty per cent are also stressed and it’s those individuals who are both screen-addicted and stressed that have a significantly higher level of emotional stress.”
The study looks into individuals who already struggled with anxiety – whether emotionally or physically – and their relationship with these screens for various activities, such as relaxing, entertaining, and social networking. Computers, televisions, smartphones, all screens may serve as a coping mechanism for people who already suffer or are actively developing mental health disorders; and this is what needs to be unpacked, according to Khalili-Mahani.
As mental health is still a considerably social taboo topic, people do not necessarily associate the simple use of screens for consuming news, or work-related activities, with screen addiction. Khalili-Mahani pointed out the fact that there is a sense of social guilt when it comes to using technology, which arguably impedes the conversation surrounding screen addiction and stress. Yet, everyone is using technology, one way or another. According to Statistics Canada, the percentage of the population [using technology] is above 90 per cent in most provinces, no matter what category of addiction or stress groups they fit into.
Paradoxically, the goal of the research is not to find a solution to withdraw screen-addicted individuals from technology, but rather to develop information and communication technology, using screens for health care prevention. This could be quite a controversial approach, as some social movements are calling for technology’s total disengagement, such as quitting Facebook. Indeed, the abrupt rise of technology confronts us with a lack of comprehension, which can lead to demonization and even disdain. The more stressed or anxious someone is feeling, the greater the opportunity for escaping reality via the internet.
But finding a solution within the problem makes sense. Individuals suffering from both screen-addiction and intense levels of stress could find a familiar comfort as they are undeniably more drawn to these technologies, argued Khalili-Mahani. Using screen technologies to reach out to highly-stressed individuals and help with mental health diseases, such as depression or suicidal tendencies, are still under development. Nonetheless, it is a great step towards positively adapting rather than passively losing our inner personal battles with technology.
Photos by Laurence B.D.