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Digital dependencies and global mental health

From EverybodyWiki Bios & Wiki
Digital dependencies
Young people in Romania using smartphones
Typessocial media addiction, gaming disorder, internet addiction disorder
RelatedDigital sociology, Psychiatry, Digital anthropology, Psychology

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Digital dependencies or digital addictions are biopsychosocial and cultural phenomena caused by overuse of digital platforms, that behave differently in various societies and cultures.[1] "Psychologists and sociologists have ... been studying and debating about screens and their effects for (some) years,"[2] as have some anthropologists[3][4] and medical experts.[5] Ofcom, the regulator of communications in the United Kingdom, published a 2018 report,[6] stating "in contrast to a decade ago, most people now say they need and expect a constant internet connection, wherever they go." It asserted this is "a decade of digital dependency."[7]

From a medical perspective, in 2010, the current editor of JAMA Pediatrics published, "while not (at the time)... officially codified within a psychopathological framework, (internet addiction disorder is)... growing both in prevalence and within the public consciousness as a potentially problematic condition with many parallels to existing recognized disorders", and it may be "a 21st century epidemic".[5] He has also stated that "we're sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children."[8]

A 2014 review of the proposed medical diagnosis of social media addiction stated "while the exclusion of social media addiction from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders may give the impression that social media addiction is not a legitimate mental disorder, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting otherwise."[9][10] "There is empirical evidence indicating that compulsive social media use is a growing mental health problem, particularly among adolescent smartphone users."[10] The concept of social media and its relation to addiction has been examined since 2009.[11] However, the use of the English word "addiction" in relation to these phenomena and diagnoses has come under question.[12]

Social media has unintentionally often profoundly altered the ways that children think, interact and develop, some in a positive way, and some in a very negative way.[13][14] Whilst mental health problems have occurred throughout human history, scientists are unclear as to the direct links between social media and mental health outcomes at present. They appear to depend on the individual, and the social media platform used.[15] Some have suggested internet addictions are under-recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health disorders.[16] Some researchers have shown that girls and women are more likely than boys and men to develop a social media overuse disorder.[17]


Founded in current research on the adverse consequences of overusing technology,[18][19] "digital addiction" , or "digital dependence" has been used as an overarching phrase to suggest an increasing trend of compulsive behaviour amongst users of technological devices.[1]

Unrestrained use of technological devices may impact upon developmental, social, mental and physical well-being and result in symptoms akin to other behavioural addictions.[20] Several clinics worldwide now offer treatment for internet addiction disorder,[21][22] and several studies have sought to establish a connection between the use of the internet and patterns of behaviour.[23][24]

As a critical review published in the International Journal of Mental Health Addiction in 2018 specifically considered the term "addiction" in relation to overuse of the internet, questioning its suitability as a separate psychiatric entity, or whether it is a manifestation of other psychiatric disorders. They proposed that due there is a lack of recognition and consensus on the concept, treatments and diagnoses are difficult, concluding "new media has been subject to such moral panic and thus this serves a historical tradition within societal conception." They suggested that cultural shift may "enable a more critical insight into the antecedents of problematic behaviour to aid treatment, rather than simply revoking access from the Internet for such individuals."[25]

Childhood technology use[edit]

An image uploaded to the internet in 2018 entitled "Boy Mobile Phone Addiction"

From the time they are infants until their early 20s, using the process of synaptic pruning, humans remove billions of neurons in their brain, as they learn and develop connections.[26][27] There is current theory that digital media for those who are susceptible, may affect this process.[28]

Studies have shown that children’s technology use has greatly increased over the past two decades.[29][30] Moreover, it has been suggested that children in the future may experience having poorer muscle tone because of being hunched over while using the devices.[31]

One review considered "continued concerns about health and developmental/behavioral risks of excessive media use for child cognitive, language, literacy, and social-emotional development, (and) applied (the evidence to) clinical care".[32] Due to the ready availability of multiple technologies to children worldwide, the problem is bi-directional, as taking away digital devices may also have a detrimental effect.[33][34][30]

Although there are many significant sources claiming that the negatives outweigh the positives in children’s technology use, a 2010 study examined the effects of prosocial video game play, correlating it with a child’s ability to feel empathy.[35][36] The use of technology by children can also contribute to the overall improvements of fine motor skills, by playing interactive games and learning screen navigation using buttons.[37]

In regard to childhood technology use, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) developed a Family Media Plan. The intention of such a plan would be to help parents assess and structure their family's use of electronic devices and media more safely.[38] The Canadian Paediatric Society produced a similar guideline. However, a systematic review of reviews published in 2019 commented that these and other national guidelines have been criticised in lacking evidence. They reviewed previous reviews on the issue, concurring that the evidence was of mainly low to moderate quality. However they considered that overall, there is evidence associating sceentime with poorer psychological health including symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, low self esteem, and behavioural issues in childhood and adolescence. They did not find evidence for any positive health benefits of screen time. In regard to quality of life, they discussed that "Suchert[39] reported that there was a positive association between screentime and poorer psychological well-being or perceived quality of life in 11/15 studies. Costigan[40] reported a negative association between screentime and perceived health in 4/4 studies.[41]

Multidisciplinary collaboration[edit]

Digital anthropology[edit]

Anthropologists have been exploring "the borderland between anthropology, medicine and psychiatry" for some decades.[42] Professor Daniel Miller, a professor of anthropology at the University College London, commenced in 2018 a five year study called "ASSA", the Anthropology of Smartphones, Aging and Mental Health. It is based on ethnographies from 15 field sites in Brazil, Chile, industrial and rural China, England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkeyconsisting of "ten simultaneous fifteen month ethnographies across the world." [43] He notes that the effects of social media are very specific to individual locations and cultures. He contends that "a layperson might dismiss these stories as superficial. But the anthropologist takes them seriously, empathetically exploring each use of digital technologies in terms of the wider social and cultural context." The University College London offers a free five week course in relation to this, entitled Anthropology of Social Media: Why we Post, as well as offering other free e-books in relation to the issue.[44] Professor Miller states that "On almost any day one can find newspaper articles which tell us we have lost our humanity to smartphone or selfie addiction." "Digital anthropology is an arena within which developments are constantly used to make larger normative and ethical arguments rather than merely observe and account for the consequences of technological change."[45]

Digital anthropology is a developing field which studies the relationship between humans and digital-era technology. Other names for the field include: techno-anthropology,[46] digital ethnography, cyberanthropology,[47] and virtual anthropology.[48] Brian Solis, a digital analyst, anthropologist and keynote speaker working in the field, in 2018 stated "we’ve become digital addicts: it’s time to take control of technology and not let tech control us."[49]

A man sitting alone with his smartphone in Giardino di Boboli, Florence, Tuscany

Digital sociology[edit]

Digital sociology, overlapping with digital anthropology and considering cultural geographies, explores "the ways in which people interact with and use digital media using both qualitative methodologies (such as interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research)." It also investigates the various contextualisations of longstanding concerns in relation to young peoples dependence on "these technologies, their access to online pornography, cyber bullying or online sexual predation."[50] A Turkish sociological study in 2012 noted that "various interpretations of religion enable culture-specific observations on Internet consumption patterns, and its relation with different levels of religiosity. The findings revealed that the level of religiosity has a significant effect on the patterns of Internet consumption."[51]

Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist asserted that the United States 2016 presidential election, followed by the publication of several but notably two books[52][53] "is what really inflamed the public's anxiety over the seductive power of screens." "Psychologists and sociologists have obviously been studying and debating about screens and their effects for years," says Przybylski. However, the combination of these elements led to alarmism, and moral panic around these metascientific theories whilst lacking direct evidence.[2]

Przybylski also published a paper investigating a "Goldilocks" hypothesis from investigating a large representative sample of 120,115 adolescents in the United Kingdom, concluding "the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world." He suggested that this evidence may inform choices about adolescent's use of technology. However they concluded that "there is good reason to think that caregivers find enforcing existing digital screen guidelines extremely difficult," suggesting other ways of engaging with technology such as families using technologies together. [54]

A subsequent review published in Nature considered "that young people from different socio-economic backgrounds (may be) having very different experiences online," with lower income youths spending daily up to three hours more using digital devices. They considered that these same vulnerable groups "are more likely to receive negative feedback on social media, (may have) difficulties regulating their use of the Internet, and spend more time... passively viewing ... rather than actively engaging" others. It considered that this may be a new form of digital divide amongst the vulnerable.[55]

Three journalists from Guardian Media Group discussed the moral panic around screen time in 2018, considering it may be partially attributable to search algorithms, as "Google does not sort search output by quality; it ranks search input by popularity". They commented "there is very little good research in the area", and that "technology use is incredibly diverse, and while pretending it is a unitary concept may be convenient, it makes meaningful understandings or interventions impossible."[56]


A psychological review published in 2016 stated that "studies have also suggested a link between innate basic psychological needs and social network site addiction." "Social network site users seek feedback, and they get it from hundreds of people—instantly. It could be argued that the platforms are designed to get users “hooked”."[57]

From a psychological perspective, it has been suggested that the "excessive use of the internet and its resulting dependence ... (has) negative effects on wellbeing" in a philosophical article. It considered its possible amelioration by considering ancient Eastern and Western philosophies, suggesting they "may give us inspiration to confront the challenges of technological enslavement in general."[58]

Another psychological article considered "arguments in favor of reconsidering the Internet as an environment rather than as a tool, ... (exploring) the Internet's role in cognitive ecology, as well as the inadequacy of treating the Internet as a tool and thus of the current Internet-addiction model."[59]


As awareness of these issues developed, many disciplines continued to work together to develop novel solutions for safe use of technology. The ADDitude magazine online page continues to support those with the known correlated digital dependencies, to those with or without codified diagnoses, as well as providing a United States directory of educational resources for children.[60][61] Similar resources are available from many support or advocacy groups worldwide, including from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.[62][63]

Alphabet Inc in 2018 released an update for Android smartphones, including a "dashboard" app that it considers will "enable (people) to set time limits via an app timer, and give you warnings when (they've) been using it for too long".[64] Apple Inc purchased a third party application and then incorporated it as "screen time", promoting it as an integral part of iOS 12.[65] Journalists have questioned the functionality and motivations of both of these interventions from these corporations for users and for parents.[64][66]

Two large investors in Apple Inc in 2018 "believe(d) both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act. They point to research from... a “growing body of evidence” of “unintentional negative side effects,” including studies showing concerns from teachers. The group wants Apple to help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response—before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act." [67] They published an open letter in regard to this.[68] Apple Inc responded that they have "always looked out for kids, and (they) work hard to create powerful products that inspire, entertain, and educate children while also helping parents protect them online," planning "new features and enhancements planned for the future, to add functionality and make these tools even more robust." They asserted "Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers".[69]

People using phones whilst walking

A German technology startup developed an Android phone specifically designed for efficiency and minimizing screen time.[70] News Corp reported multiple strategies for minimizing screen time.[71] Facebook and Instagram announced "new tools" that they consider may assist with dependence on their products.[72]


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