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Digital Technology & Youth Mental Health - Research Essay

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

How does Digital Technology affect the psychological wellbeing of Adolescents during the Covid-19?

Digital Technology presents itself in different types of media for adolescents, for example, social media, online learning resources, interpersonal media (eg. emails, video calls, voice calls, voice messages and texts), netflix and other streaming channels and gaming sites. According to Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, she states that “screen time is not the main driver of mental illness, but dangerous online content can have an enormous impact on young people and their mental health”. (Hern, A. 2019, April 5.)

As a result the impact to psychological wellbeing can vary greatly with what type of digital technology adolescents choose to consume.

There are many helpful resources on social media that can be beneficial to adolescents, with many educational resources or mental health resources. Adolescents can also learn from the many resources available on social media. In particular, during the pandemic, adolescents may enjoy the content shared by fitness influencers and taking part in the workouts suggested by the influencer. By following these workouts, adolescents in lock-down will be able to exercise healthily even if they are not able to access the gym, which may provide a source of relief to them if they have very specific exercise habits, or for those that don’t, make encourage them to make a switch to a more healthy and active lifestyle. This can be very beneficial for adolescents as the endorphins from exercise, can reduce stress, boost self-esteem and alleviating symptoms of depression. (Cafasso, J. 2017, July 12.) Adolescents can also increase their endorphin levels with other photos and videos on social media, for example copying DIY art videos, laughing at memes or even listening to music in videos on social media. (Cafasso, J. (2017, July 12.) Additionally, there are also many groups and communities on social media which may be a big source of emotional support for those who are struggling. (Cunningham, K. (2020, July 1.)

Interpersonal Media can be defined as all “direct, one-on-one contact between individuals” media, such as text messages, voice messages, voice calls and video calls. During the pandemic, social distancing measures and lockdown restrictions can be very psychologically difficult for many individuals due to the importance of socializing. (Choi, M., & Choung, H. 2021.)

Studies have shown that people who socialize more are actually happier, and it is proven that happier people tend to socialize more. (Greenberg, M. 2019, December 31.) However, the social deprivation and isolation felt during the pandemic can cause feelings of loneliness which in the long term, may cause poor mental health and lead to mental health problems such as depression. (Choi, M., & Choung, H. 2021.) In particular, adolescents are hypersensitive to the positive effects of social stimuli and negative effects of social isolation. As a result, the negative feelings of social deprivation and isolation can have a negative impact on the brain and behavioural development of adolescents. Although the use of interpersonal media can mitigate this as individuals are still able to communicate, socialize and bond, which can reduce the negative effect of Covid-19 lockdowns, including feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction in life. Additionally, those with stronger high quality friendships and relationships appear to be less likely to develop mental health problems and develop increased adolescent resilience. (Orben, A., Tomova, L., & Blakemore, S.-J. 2020, August 1.)

However, the quick distribution of knowledge in social media can cause anxiety in many adolescents and lead to ‘FOMO’ also known as fear of missing out, as all parties and group gatherings are shared on social media. (Hunt, M. G., Marx, R., Lipson, C., & Young, J. 2018.) Additionally, the numerical use of likes, comments and followers quantify a persons’ popularity, which may lead to individuals trying to create more exciting content or editing their photos to obtain more followers. The highly edited and artificial nature of the content on social media such as Instagram, can also lead to people feeling anxious or depressed or lead to the development of body image or eating disorders as they are constantly being shown a set type of body standards (Perloff, R. M. 2014.) . Social media can also be addictive, due to the rush of dopamine we get whenever we receive a like or comment. This can further heighten the stress and social anxiety that vulnerable adolescents feel whenever they scroll through social media or when they post anything. (Siska, A. 2020, September 28.) As a result, a study from the University of Chicago found that 58% of teens aged 13-17, have taken at least one break from the social media platforms, with 23% of teens who did not take a break wanted to take one. The study also found that those who took breaks voluntarily felt positive about their experience, and those who were involuntarily on a break felt “anxious and disconnected”, and were reported to have greater “feelings of missing out”. This may mean that adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds may be more at risk, due to limited or lack of access to digital technology. (AP-NORC at the University of Chicago. 2020, July 1.) In fact, an observational study based in Canada found that “early mental health problems for girls predicts later social media usage,” reported Candice Odgers, PhD, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine. This suggests that even before use, teens seem to be aware of the stress social media can cause, showing how clearly social media can have a negative impact on the psychological wellbeing of adolescents. (Heid, M. 2020, May 2.) While interpersonal media can reduce feelings of loneliness, a study in Chinese societies (Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Wuhan) prior to the pandemic, reported that online communication cannot replace in-person contact, due to the relationships being formed online not being as strong. Additionally, people who did “disclose things deep in their heart on the Internet tend to experience low quality of life”. (Lee, P. S. N., Leung, L., Lo, V., Xiong, C., & Wu, T. 2010.) This was also studied in a group of adolescents in Canada during the pandemic, which showed a positive correlation between time use on social media and virtual communication with friends with feelings of depression. (Ellis, W. E., Dumas, T. M., & Forbes, L. M. 2020.)

Additionally, the impact of psychological wellbeing is also likely to be influenced by other social, cultural, biological and environmental factors such as, family circumstances, pre-standing disability conditions, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status and other factors. (Oskrochi, G., Oskrochi, Y., Bani-Mustafa, A., & Khan, H. 2018, June 13.) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. n.d.)

For example, adolescents who have closer and healthier relationships with high functioning family members, are likely to be less affected by the Covid-19 lockdown than those who do not. (Orben, A., Tomova, L., & Blakemore, S.-J. 2020, August 1.) In the US, 14% of all public school students, aged 3-21, have a disability. This means that there are a considerable number of disabled adolescents who may be more prone to cyber bullying and social exclusion, and feel more psychologically vulnerable to the attacks of digital technology. (Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. n.d.)

In particular, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that 31.9% of adolescents struggle with an anxiety disorder, meaning that over one third of adolescents will be more susceptible to these negative psychological impacts, which are likely to be heightened due to the increased use of digital technology. (The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. n.d.) Additionally, adolescents with a black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background), may be more likely to be more vulnerable to the negative impacts by digital technology on their psychological wellbeing. For example, due to racial discrimination, mental health stigma, social and economical inequalities, biological factors and others. The mental health foundation states that “refugees and asylum seekers are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population, including higher rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD”. (Mental Health Foundation. 2021, July 20.) Although, for other reasons such as different parenting styles, culture and biological factors, people from BAME backgrounds may even have higher levels of psychological wellbeing, and as a result may be more resistant to the negative impacts of digital technology. For instance, studies in the UK show that mental health problems are more common among British people than Chinese people. (Mental Health Foundation. 2021, July 20.) However, the data on BAME people may not be accurate, as due to language barriers, mental health stigma and other individual factors, they may be less likely to report their struggles with mental health. (Mental Health Foundation. 2021, July 20.) Alignment with Project Brief

In conclusion, it is not possible to say at this stage whether digital technology is good or bad for the psychological wellbeing of adolescents due to the various variables in place, including but not limited to, variation in the type of digital technology used, variation in the time use of digital technology, variation in the geographic differences in restrictions for Covid-19 lockdowns, gender, cultural differences, socio-economic differences and therefore differences to access to digital technology.

However, it is clear that certain types of digital technology have either an overall good or bad impact on the psychological wellbeing for individual adolescents depending on their individual circumstances. For example, while interpersonal media and communication is not better for psychological well being than in-person communication, during COVID-19 lockdowns, it is overall more beneficial for the overall wellbeing of adolescents.


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