Technology & Mental Health

Today's adolescents are coming of age at a time when high levels of stress may seem par for the course. 

Mental well-being is challenged by our reliance upon devices for information, entertainment, and connection. Gaming addiction. Reduced attention spans. Distorted expectations. Exposure to traumatic or negative perceptions and expectations. Inescapable bullying, FOMO

Stressed Out

“Members of Gen Z—people ages 15 to 21—reported the worst mental health of any generation included in the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report, which was based on almost 3,500 interviews with people ages 18 and older, plus 300 interviews with teenagers ages 15 to 17,” TIME magazine noted in 2018. 

Many experts blame relentless, unprecedented stress for the phenomenon. The global climate crisis, gun violence, political turmoil, and worrying about one’s online prestige are all significant stressors continuously delivered to America’s teenagers on their mobile devices. That’s why author and psychology professor Jean Twenge dubbed this new generation “iGen.” 

In her 2017 book iGen, Twenge described members of this cohort as having grown up with cell phones and being unable to remember a time before the Internet—with devastating consequences. “They are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011.”

Many experts fear that being “plugged in” 24 hours a day is having a detrimental impact on the psychological health of iGen Americans. Many of them sleep with their smartphone under the pillow almost every night. 

“The complete dominance of the smartphone among teens has had ripple effects across every area of iGen’ers’ lives, from their social interactions to their mental health…. The average teen checks her phone more than eighty times a day,” writes Twenge. 

Cyberbullying

Using technology to bully other teenagers has now developed into an art form. Some adolescents “video shame” other kids by using their camera phone to video and later share a bullying incident, which may include one or more kids slapping, hitting, kicking or punching the victim. In Britain, these horrendous attacks were euphemistically known as “happy slapping” among teenagers for a while. 

A much more common form of cyberbullying is spreading rumors, lies, or gossip about the victim online through websites or blogs. This could involve posting photographs to shame someone, sometimes with nude pictures shared online for anyone on the internet to view and download. Others set up an account on a social networking site and post as the victim while saying mean, hurtful or offensive things. Actual photos of the victim may be used to make the account look authentic.

And even if not exposed to outright bullying, many teens worry constantly about their online prestige, persona, and their image among peers. Competing with photoshopped images of picture-perfect rivals can be intensely stressful and lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Girls, in particular, have long strived to imitate unrealistic beauty standards promoted in advertising—even before the internet—but now they are scrolling through Instagram feeds, looking at flawless photos of celebrities or even of their peers who spent hours getting the image “just right.” It’s a no-win situation. 

Gaming Addiction

Another online danger for teens is gaming. Media reports about teenagers logging 12 hours a day onto video games, where they do battle in a post-apocalyptic world are no longer uncommon. Teachers complain about students who fall asleep in class and whose grades have plummeted—all because an online game has become the main focus of those kids’ lives. 

Many teens—in this case often boys—display typical symptoms of addiction: total preoccupation with the gaming activity despite negative consequences and irritability when deprived of playing. The World Health Organization (WHO) designated “gaming disorder” as a disease for the first time in June. According to the WHO, “gaming disorder is defined … as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Reduced Attention Span

If it is not enough that the internet gets our teens hooked on video games or makes them feel unworthy, it has also ruined their attention span. A study from the Microsoft Corporation found that people now generally lose concentration after only eight seconds—one second sooner than the notoriously ill-focused goldfish—highlighting the effects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain. 

These might not simply be cases of bad concentration. Some experts fear, the relentless digital distraction from an early age may actually alter circuits in the brain—permanently. An international team of researchers from Western Sydney University, Harvard University, Kings College in London, Oxford University, and the University of Manchester have found that the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of cognition, which may reflect changes in the brain, affecting our attentional capacities, memory processes, and social interactions. 

“The key findings of this report are that high levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain,” warned the study’s lead author. “For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention – which then, in turn, may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task.”

The effects of ubiquitous technology use and exposure are not the only factors contributing to increased rates of reported adolescent anxiety and depression. More research is needed to identify the drivers of these dysfunctions, suggest policy changes to address these issues, and find effective treatments. 

Anxiety and depression disorders are treatable conditions. Young people suffering from these painful conditions can take heart in the knowledge that skilled mental healthcare providers can employ psychotherapies and medications, when appropriate, to reduce symptoms, restore the quality of life, and develop long-term strategies to make lasting change. 

The Turnbridge Adolescent Program specializes in deep diagnoses that identify the underlying sources of anxiety and depression to determine optimal treatment plans faster. The program's goal is to understand the factors contributing to these mental health disorders to improve long-term outcomes.