Re-evaluating Technology’s Impact on Mental Health | by Sean Ahearn | IPG Media Lab | Sep, 2020 – Medium

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  • September 10, 2020
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How Technology Became A Lifeline for Our Wellbeing During the Pandemic

Sep 10 · 12 min read

In our 2020 Outlook, we discussed The Age of Anxiety; a trend referring to the ever-growing mental exhaustion borne out of our always-on, increasingly connected culture. Daily, we are hammered with an endless stream of content vying for our attention on every screen and toaster in sight. Via Ambient Computing, we find ourselves increasingly tracked, behaviors monitored, and privacy limited. These technological burdens alone were enough to cause serious agita.

But as countries around the globe went into lockdown, we ironically became more “connected” than ever to our devices and digital media. The services often most scrutinized had suddenly become the most vital for accessing information, and keeping us entertained. What’s been the impact on our mental well-being? What will it look like long term?

Plenty has been written on this subject. Type in technology and mental health in Google Search, and you’ll unearth mountains of articles and academic papers. Most often too, the conclusions drawn are not positive. But Covid-19 has added a new wrinkle to this relationship. In this article, we’ll evaluate some of the major ways in which our technology and digital media consumption have changed during the pandemic — both the bad and the good — and how this has affected our mental wellness.

As a trend accelerator, Covid-19 has sped up innovative transformations in many areas. Unfortunately, it has also exacerbated technology and digital media’s pre-existing negative impact on people, including information overload, dangerous misinformation, and work-life unbalance. It may be hard to discern the pandemic’s damage on our collective psyche from the negative impact of technologies, given how closely correlated and concurrent these two have become. Yet, with so many people holding onto social media as a key source of information and updates during a scarily uncertain time, it is safe to say that overstimulation has taken its toll on our mental health. We want to make it stop, yet we can’t turn away.

Information Overload

The association between social media consumption and mental health is nothing new, and has been widely deliberated in psychological circles even prior to the pandemic. But as lockdowns took hold in early spring, young people and adults alike flocked to social media in droves for the latest news, entertainment, and social connection. In a Harris Poll conducted during peak lockdown months of March through May, 46% to 51% of US adults reported increased social media usage since lockdown began. Audience data from MAGNA tells a similar story. Of the top five social media apps (Facebook, Tiktok, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter), all saw a considerable increase in time spent from March through early April by approximately 7 minutes per day, and the increase is expected to continue through 2021.

The impact of this surge in social media usage has been complicated. Most of the previous studies shared here have focused on the long-term, but recent research from China suggests short-term implications as well. A survey conducted during January to February 2020, looked at social media exposure of Covid-19 info and reported mental health. 82% of respondents reported being frequently exposed to information about the pandemic through social media. Of those, 48% showed symptoms of depression, 23% for anxiety, and 19% for both disorders. Important to note that these rates are significantly higher than previous national samples. A separate survey conducted in Iraqi Kurdistan found similar connections for Social Media’s role in producing anxiety symptoms.

Even before the pandemic struck, the 24-hour news cycle was alive and humming. Starting in early March, this trend was put into overdrive as publishers sought to meet the endless demand for information surrounding the global health crisis. A June report from Statista indicated that globally, news content consumption has increased by 36% between the period of March through June 2020.

It’s likely that we won’t know the true ramifications for several years as the dust settles and more research is conducted. Nevertheless, there’s ample evidence to suggest that we could see mental health fall out in both the short term, and long term as a result of information overload.

Dangerous Misinformation

While it’s important to stay up to date on local and national levels, studies have shown that overconsumption can take a toll on our physical and emotional health. Due to the sensational and often negative nature of news headlines, the impact on one’s psyche as a result of consuming too much can be damaging; inciting fight or flight responses that impact brain chemistry and mood. This compounded regularly over an extended period can cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, and general fatigue. One study found participants experienced an increase in both anxious and sad moods only after 14-minutes of viewing negative news material.

To complicate matters further, in the early days of lockdown a new term began to emerge in the headlines: Infodemic. This was in reference to the plethora of information that spread like wildfire through digital communities. Now not only did consumers have to contend with the sheer amount of content, but it suddenly became their responsibility to untangle the truth. Nowhere is this more prevalent than social media, which can be a great source for quick info, but often comes with a surplus of emotionally charged and inaccurate claims. During a pandemic when truth becomes fundamental to survival, this only serves to induce these stressors further. For their part, companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been active in policing their platform for misinformation and elevating legitimate resources, but it is still an ongoing issue that deserves our attention and vigilance.

Work-Life Unbalance

Another major disruption to our daily lives has been the adoption and impact of remote work technologies, especially that of video conferencing and communications platforms. As offices began shutting down, video conferencing and virtual boardrooms transitioned from novel necessity to normal routine. Usage of platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom exploded in the early days of the pandemic and overnight, these tools we were hardly engaging with instantly became the primary means of conducting business.

Unfortunately, these incredible tools have had the unintended consequences of elongating the workday, and hampering one’s ability to disengage. As of May, Zoom reported a 700% increase in weekday evening meetings on its platform since February, and a 2,000% increase in meetings on the weekend. And this jump isn’t just due to a transition online, data shows employees are also beginning their days earlier working later. Surfshark, a privacy app maker, found spikes in email usage between midnight and 3 a.m. that were not present pre-pandemic. Further, surveys by email client maker Superhuman found peak email time has crept up an hour to 9 a.m.

This “always-on” work culture is leading to greater burnout and mental hardship. This was true even prior to the days of “Zoom Fatigue.” Evidence has long upheld that an “always-on” work culture and habits ineffectively blend our personal and professional lives, contributing to higher stress levels. A Meyers Briggs Company Survey conducted over 2018 and 2019, found more than a quarter of respondents said that the always-on culture interfered with their personal or family life, and a fifth indicated that it could lead to mental exhaustion.

Fortunately, we see many organizations recognizing these trends and providing resources and tips for creating boundaries and disconnecting. This course correction and creation of remote-etiquette will be much needed, as more companies consider the benefits of partial or permanent situations long after the pandemic.

For as much as this digital era can be held responsible for our Age of Anxiety, it’s often these same services and mediums that have provided welcome reprieve and tranquility during such uncertain and difficult circumstances. After all, very few of these platforms enter the world with bad intentions. And most, if not all, are meant to improve our quality of life.

Digitized Socialization and Community

As we discussed earlier, modern tech has often been accused of creating a more isolated and individualized society. However, during this period of physical distancing, these same tools have been our greatest means of connecting and maintaining relationships with others. The importance of communication in sustaining positive mental health during extended periods of isolation cannot be overstated.

The US was already facing an epidemic of loneliness prior to the pandemic. 79% of Gen Z, 71% of Millenials, and 65% of Gen X reported feeling lonely in 2019. Under quarantine, reports of feeling lonely and disconnected during quarantine have understandably risen. An April 2020 survey from SocialPro indicated that a third of Americans reported greater feelings of isolation and loneliness than typical. Those of us who were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have a roommate were blessed with a constant companion, but this is not the case for the 35.7 million Americans who live alone. The harmful effects of loneliness extend beyond a negative mood. Studies have shown social isolation can lead to complications for both physical and mental health including heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression.

This combination of isolating circumstances and mental health fall-out has provided an interesting opportunity for communicative and social digital tools to step into the spotlight as a solution. Cloud-powered platforms have unlocked entirely new territories for connecting people virtually to combat social isolation.

We’ve already mentioned Zoom and it’s rise to prominence, but other entrants and legacy tools such as Apple’s Facetime and Epic’s Houseparty are getting more attention as well. What’s notable within these platforms is the experimentation of co-viewing during this time. Houseparty’s In the House event enabled users to experience a series of “live” performances and entertainment together, while apart.

Gaming and virtual world spaces offer a similar social experience component. Epic’s Fortnite, arguably the most popular free-to-play game on the planet, boasted a 350 million user base in April; a 100 million increase since the previous year. They too have recognized the need for a purely social environment, developing an entirely new in-game destination called Party Royale devoted to non-gaming purposes.

Beyond just entertainment, there is also a clinical application to these services. Research supports that communicative technologies and digital services can be an effective intervention tool for loneliness. A meta-analysis conducted on older adult populations in Poland and Italy found technology was effective in combating loneliness. Additional support to these ends comes in a recent article on Social Isolation and Loneliness encourages embracing technology as a practical solution.

All of this is not to dismiss the negative consequences that were raised earlier around these same platforms. But we’d be remiss not to acknowledge the incredible opportunities these tools have afforded during a challenging time. As with many things in life, what’s important is finding the right balance through moderation.

Mental Wellness Goes Virtual

Amid a global pandemic, foremost on everyone’s mind is easy access to health information and care. But with our ability to travel severely limited, and a hypersensitive pulse on any symptoms or direct contact with others, the circumstances were ripe for a more seamless digital solution. Enter telehealth, which broadly involves the remote provision of healthcare between doctors and patients, most often by way of video consultations.

Telehealth usage and availability has accelerated during this pandemic out of necessity, thanks in part to relaxed federal regulations. Previously, only 24% of U.S. health organizations had virtual care. This has changed dramatically, as early-stage offerings suddenly became one of the primary sources of care during lockdowns. Telehealth vendor, Amwell reported a 2000% surge in visits to their platform since the onset of the pandemic. Projections from Forrester estimate one billion virtual care visits this year alone. And although the visitation rates will subside, these behaviors are expected to have sticking power post pandemic as benefits plans expand to accommodate more service and people become accustomed to the process.

When it comes to mental health, these services could not have come at a better time. The U.S. was already facing a mental health crisis before the pandemic, as a fledgling system struggled to keep up with increasing demand for care. As the pandemic took hold, this demand has sharply risen. Calls to the Disaster Distress Hotline increased 338% in March, and first time mental-health visits are now regular occurrences for private psychiatric practices. Private practices are still under-resourced, and struggling to keep up with the volume; however, these tele-mental health digital platforms have allowed counselors to meet with more patients fluidly. Services like Talkspace, Inpathy, and Betterhelp are providing a much-needed lifeline as the world navigates an unprecedented amount of challenge and uncertainty.

Outside of the professional realm, we’ve also seen a rise in popularity of mindfulness and meditation apps. Subscription-based services like Calm and Headspace offer digital escape through guided relaxation and stress-reducing exercises. During the week of March 29th, downloads of these apps hit 750,000, marking a 25–29% increase since the start of 2020. We also saw non-endemic brands recognizing a need and creating solutions. Snapchat introduced “Here for You,” a set of in-app tools focused on mental health and wellness. Prior to the pandemic, Pinterest rolled out their Compassionate Search feature which identifies negative mood search inquiries (stress, anxiety, etc.), and surfaces pertinent resources.

These digital services have done their part in elevating the conversation as the world endures a shared mental marathon. More importantly, they have provided a means for easy access to just-in-time care that can in many cases be life-and-death. As we move beyond the pandemic, we’re likely to see services such as these stick around as more emphasis is placed on the importance of a healthy mind.

As we contemplate the positive and negative implications of our digital tools and behaviors, it’s important to consider what impact this will have on brands and their strategies moving forward. The early days of lockdown proved to be a learning experience for many as they navigated an unprecedented crisis, and have continued to face complex social and political issues throughout the year. As the states gingerly reopen and relax restrictions, many very much recovering both mentally and physically, there are several lessons and opportunities that brand marketers should keep in mind.

A Customer-First Marketing Approach

What’s been made abundantly clear throughout this period is that, in times of crisis, consumers’ needs should be the top priority. At the outset of the pandemic, we saw many brands pivot messaging and manufacturing to address the here and now: producing PPE and forgoing profit in service of more urgent causes. As parts of the world slowly begin to reopen and relax restrictions, this level of empathy should be carried into brand messaging, products, and services to improve customer experience and alleviate consumer anxiety. The north star for brands should continue to be that of care and concern for their customers and communities. This begins with crafting messaging that supports versus sells, and creating proper infrastructure and training around customer service and support.

Fluid Digital Integration

Customers have new priorities, and consumer behavior is likely to reflect them. Many that were forced by circumstances to explore and adopt digital tools and platforms will be expecting the same ease and seamlessness moving forward. Therefore, the focus for brands should be placed on updating and improving the customer journey to remove friction from the process and experience. This includes adapting their products and services to digital models with thoughtfully created UX and design. In developing these digital tools, emphasis should be placed on maintaining an element of human touch to convey warmth and care particularly in elements of customer service and support.

Wellness as a Value Proposition

If we’ve been able to illustrate anything throughout this article, it’s that mental (and physical) health and wellness is of chief concern as we look towards the future. No doubt there will be repercussions from this period not yet known that reveal themselves months, years, or decades from now. While mental health can be a tricky topic to broach, it could serve brands to incorporate a wellness component into their offerings as it becomes ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist. As mentioned earlier, we’ve seen social applications like Snapchat, Facebook, and Pinterest create resource hubs to elevate conversations around mental health. This is fitting given their high engagement and community-centric models, and also given their potential culpability in perpetuating the issues.

Interestingly, other less endemic brands are beginning to enter the conversation as well. Sobey’s Grocery Chain announced in August that it would pledge millions in financial support for youth mental health programs. Jansport, the backpack retailer, created their #LightentheLoad campaign focused on connecting young people to mental health resources as well. If an external effort doesn’t feel like a natural fit for your organization, look inward and see what kinds of employee benefits and services you can add in the mental health space. Many meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace provide enterprise solutions that could be valuable. Brands that seek to build a lasting relationship with customers should be taking their mental wellness into account when designing the brand experiences.