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Is technology helping or hindering our mental health?

Uscreates digital by design

This blog looks at how technology is contributing to our mental health. It explores the implications of using technology to positively support mental health but also examines how tech and digital has the power to negatively affect someone’s mental health state if not designed in a conscious way.

Over the past few years, there has been an emergence of innovative solutions using technologies and data to successfully address a range of mental health issues, including avatar therapy to support schizophrenia and the use of virtual reality headsets for emotional counselling. There has also been a rise in non-clinical mental wellbeing apps such as Headspace and Moodnotes as well as clinically endorsed services such Big White Wall, and Thrive London.

Whilst technology clearly has the potential to support good mental health and is making positive inroads into doing this, the flipside is that technology and digital use can also negatively impact on someone’s mental health. Recent research has highlighted a link between heavy smartphone use amongst students and increased anxiety, and the term ‘digital detox’ has become common parlance for people improving their well-being by disconnecting from technology.

So how might technology enhance our mental well-being rather than hinder it?

As designers, we believe that it is important to adopt a human-centered approach, building the technology consciously around the health and wellbeing needs of the person. This was the focus of a recent Nesta event around the future of mental health technology. A mix of clinicians, designers and policy-makers discussed the potential of technology to make us feel more present and connected if designed in the right way. Here are some thoughts from the event and from our own digital projects and research at Uscreates:

Technology is not a substitution for human connection

“People need a human touch – you can’t just put a digital product out into the world and expect it to be done”. Kumar Jacob, CEO of Mindwave and designer of digital health solutions discussed how humans need to connect in the real world, and if there is no human behind it then people stop using the technology. An app cannot just be designed and left – it needs humans to power it.  Our recent Humanising Technology research and development (R&D) work has focused on understanding how technology can be used to enhance the human experience, rather than hinder it. Conducting research into what can help make technology more human-centred, we’ve generated a set of principles that can help us think more critically about why we are using technology as part of the solution in the first place – and ultimately whether it is helping improve our health and wellbeing.

Work with existing social media platforms such as Youtube, Facebook, Instagram etc
Victoria Betton, founder of mHabitat who support people-centred digital innovation in health and social care, talked at the event of “leveraging the everyday”. A chat-bot that allows teenagers to ask embarrassing questions or share feelings anonymously may have more success in a familiar setting where people are already connected and feel comfortable. Although there is evidence that social media can be addictive and damaging with trolls and cyberbullies, if worked with in a sensitive and considered way this could be mitigated. It also feeds into a broader question around the accountability of Facebook and other social media platforms, and whether they should be doing more to help support positive mental health or more intentionally ‘design in’ ways to support it.

Test with users at the start and then keep on testing/interacting with them throughout the development stage and beyond
At Uscreates, an essential digital principle is to place people at the centre of the design process. We believe that by involving people in all stages of the process helps to ensure that solutions are grounded in the needs of people that will use them. As Kumar stated at the event “You can’t sit in dark rooms with 150 page briefing documents and expect to do something meaningful!” Test and learn is another key digital principle at Uscreates – prototyping rapidly to learn quickly when a solution is not meeting the needs of a user, and then changing or adapting it as required.

Technology can help people view the world in a different way

There are a whole host of emerging technologies such as virtual reality headsets that are helping people view the everyday world in more positive ways through the creation of virtual worlds. University College London (UCL) are investigating avatar therapy to support people with schizophrenia to control the voices of their hallucinations. VReflect-Me is another virtual reality tool being developed, and aims to support people with anxiety issues and depression. It allows a user to inhabit a virtual world where they can take on different personas, such as Freud to tackle a problem from a range of angles.  

Creating new healthy behaviours

Developers are also utilising technology to help people feel more connected and less alone through real-life interactions. Tomo, a digital tool featured at the Nesta event, encourages people to complete small tasks – such as going to an exercise class or getting out of bed – and then upload a photo on completion. The tool then shares these photos with a small number of other users, and they validate the action. It is the opposite of social media where people share the high points in their lives, here people share their struggles and then are celebrated for carrying out a positive habit. The Wheel of Wellbeing, a project developed by Uscreates, around the 6 ways to wellbeing, uses a digital tracker to track a person’s every-day experience and categorise what they see in the world around them to improve their wellbeing, before sharing tips with others in their network.

Technology, if designed in the right way, can make us feel more present and connected. There is extreme potential for technology to change negative behaviours and embed new healthy ones, support people suffering from severe mental illness and create better and more positive connections with each other and the surrounding environment.

Although digital health services can offer many potential benefits, those designed without considering the user’s specific needs and experiences will fail. At Uscreates, our design process is guided by the principles of co-creation, deep human understanding, reframing challenges, prototyping and on-going testing. By following these principles we can design a service or product – whether online or offline – that is bespoke to each mental health challenge we work on, has a higher chance of meaningful success and impact, is grounded in user need and can become the blueprint for wider roll out.

To request more information about our principles, approach and digital by design service packages please contact Robbie Bates, Design Director