The effects of digitalisation on mental health are a double-edged sword

Interdisciplinary conversations break boundaries to find creative solutions to wicked and current problems. ‘GenZ viewpoints’ is an interdisciplinary blog post series which dives into current topics circulating around digitalisation from the perspective of recently published research articles. In each post, we chat with experts from different fields of study to discover new insights into the phenomenon under inspection.

For this blogpost covering the topic of mental health and digitalisation, we interviewed Krista Hylkilä and Niko Männikkö from the University of Oulu’s DigiWellbeing research group, and GenZ researcher Simo Hosio, who is working on building a mental health data bank for students.
Doctoral Researcher Krista Hylkilä (on the left) and Postdoctoral Researcher Niko Männikkö chatted with us about the effects of social media use on mental health.

Digitalisation affects human life comprehensively, entailing phenomena many of which are still left unexplored. Health and mental health are, undoubtedly, a crucial part of human life, as they lay the basis for wellness and effective functioning. The effects of digitalisation on mental health is a novel yet expanding research area, which enwraps two major lines of inquiry: how digitalisation affects people’s mental health, and how digital technologies can in turn be used to improve people’s health.

Recent statistics serve as further motivation for investigating the complex relationship between digitalisation and mental health, especially from the perspective of young people. According to the Finnish institute for Health and Welfare, between 20 to 25 percent of young people in Finland suffer from mental health related problems, and this has been a growing trend during the past few years. As young people are still developing, they may lack the necessary skills needed for regulating their behaviour in respect of social media among other manifestations of digitalisation. This calls for the consideration of different age groups and populations to be integrated into the research starting points concerning mental health and digitalisation.

Promoting people’s, and especially young people’s mental health in the era of digitalisation is the key goal of the University of Oulu’s DigiWellbeing research group. Doctoral Researcher Krista Hylkilä is mapping the risk factors that predict problematic behaviors among young adults on online social media platforms, such as Instagram. Postdoctoral Researcher Niko Männikkö, in turn, investigates digital activities, including online gaming, in relation to well-being from the perspective of different age groups.

GenZ Associate Professor Simo Hosio’s team has used crowdsourcing to compose a databank that contains university students’ intel about their mental health. Via a custom-built crowdsourcing tool, Hosio and his team obtained responses from 1071 students in Finland and the UK. They have used different methods to analyse the data to find the emerging themes and self-care strategies which have proved useful for the respondents. Recently, Hosio and his team have used this data bank as a basis for conducting chatbot research.

In this blogpost, Hylkilä and Männikkö will discuss the different attributes of social media and online gaming that both enhance and hamper mental health, and they will also address social media and online gaming problem behaviours. Hosio, in turn, will contribute to the discussion from the point of view of future solutions that can be developed to maintain or improve people’s mental health.

Health is a subjective experience

In order to tackle the complex relationship between mental health and digitalisation, the core definition of health needs to be visited first. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), health is a complex concept that consists of social, physical, and psychological elements, which are interconnected. The balance of these elements is what prophesies good health.

Hylkilä and Männikkö note that although there are different ways to measure health, the ways in which people experience health are highly unique and subjective. In other words, health equates to a person’s subjective beliefs and thoughts about their well-being. People may have differing ideas when it comes to the meaning of having good health, and this is a salient phenomenon that surfaces in Hylkilä and Männikkö’s survey-based research study on young adults’ social media use.

Hosio, on the other hand, says that the mutually agreed measures, or validated scales of mental health are a fundamental component in the construction of the mental health data bank. However, Hosio agrees that subjective health experiences reflect in his data too. It is clear that people differ in regards of their personal resilience and sensitivity to life stressors.

What makes a person vulnerable?

The question of who is more prone to developing addictions and other mental health problems concerning the online world is the essential research starting point for Männikkö and Hylkilä. But even in the mapping of risk factors, how people experience social media for instance, is highly subjective and varies from person to person.

Männikkö notes that a person’s stage of development can be seen as one of the predictors of the risk of developing problems. A person’s age guides their behaviour online.

“Teenage years entail different conflicts which a young person must resolve in order to progress in their development – for instance, taking distance from their caregivers and developing their own identities. In some cases, the surrounding digital activities may disrupt a young person’s development,” Männikkö explains.

Other so-called ‘push factors’ that may predispose a person to developing problems in respect of the online world include the underlying mental health problems and individual coping mechanisms. For example, when feeling anxious or down, a person might resort to online gaming to alleviate their pain. In the same way, social media can also function as a coping mechanism for some.

Männikkö continues that a person’s values as well as beliefs and attitudes towards the digital world are also the essential ‘push factors.’ Whether one’s mental health begins to deteriorate as a result of their social media use depends on their personal values and how they use social media to begin with – and as a byproduct of these values.

At this point, however, the cause-effect relationship between online activities and mental health issues is quite vague. Whether mental health issues lead to the development of problematic behaviour regarding online activities, or if the reverse is also true, remain as the important questions for future research to address.

According to Männikkö and Hylkilä, recent research has even proposed the ‘dopamine hypothesis.’ When going online, people may be looking for ‘quick fixes’ to alleviate their pain. Social media and online gaming may offer quick sources of pleasure which are easily available. Dopamine gets released in the brain, and the person feels a momentary relief.

Research has shown that in addictions, dopamine is released in the brain, and it keeps the person hooked on the substance or activity, depending on the type of addiction the person is suffering from.

In the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), there are criteria for gaming and gambling disorders, which means that a doctor can veritably diagnose someone as having an addiction of that sort. Hylkilä is hoping that in the future, there will be more information available regarding whether problematic social media use should also be recognised in the ICD-11.

What aspects of social media might contribute to mental health problems?

According to Hylkilä, social media has several qualities which may work to decrease one’s well-being more directly. Aside from causing additions, Hylkilä says that social media may foster feelings of loneliness, depending on how one uses the platform. In addition to that, one may feel the urge to compare themselves to other users, resulting in feelings of inferiority in respect of other people. Bullying is also common on social media platforms.

For those who are already suffering from mental health problems, research has shown that social media use may reinforce depression and anxiety, and conditions such as attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) correlate positively with online problem behaviours.

In terms of the physical dimension of health, research has shown that social media use may contribute to insomnia, as well as stiffness of neck and wrists.

“Excessive social media use is inevitably connected to physical health. A person might be lying on a couch in an uncomfortable position while scrolling through social media for hours,” Hylkilä says.

One of the other downsides of social media use, particularly from the point of view of teenagers, is the access to fake, provocative and shocking images and content. When encountering this type of content, young people may lack the resources needed for coping. In addition to that, the content which a young person is exposed to contributes to their overall understanding of the world.

To provide resources for parents, the city of Oulu has published a guideline book regarding children’s and teenagers’ use of digital devices. According to Hylkilä, one of the important building blocks introduced in the guidelines is the fostering of a positive and safe conversation atmosphere at home. Children and teenagers should be encouraged to talk about their feelings. Caregivers and teachers also have a huge responsibility in teaching critical reading skills to younger generations.

In what ways can social media use promote mental health?

When evaluating the risks of social media, Hylkilä and Männikkö remind that it is also important to consider the other side of the coin. While for some people, social media may foster feelings of loneliness, for others it may be a great outlet for building and maintaining social connections. Instead of comparing oneself to others, the likes and comments on social media may also boost one’s self-esteem.

Social media may also help people to crystallise their personal goals and life aspirations. Information about potential career choices and university programs, for example, are readily available on social media, and the platform enables networking and interaction with these institutions.

People are also increasingly relying on the online world for peer support regarding mental health issues, for instance. Instagram has thousands of mental health accounts, run by users themselves, that provide support and resources for people who may be struggling with the same issues.

Making mental health tools accessible to people

When Hosio collected his data, he also observed that the respondents frequently reported how they were turning to TikTok and Instagram to find information and support for mental health issues.

“Algorithms dictate the type of content that we become exposed to on social media, and people often mistake the popular content as being reliable, when this is often not the case,” Hosio points out.

Providing people with reliable and easily accessible self-care information is Hosio’s team’s ultimate goal in terms of the mental health data bank.

Hosio notes that solutions that offer self-care resources are growing in popularity. A mental health data bank is just one example, as several different mental health applications and activity trackers have already entered the markets.

“The digitalisation of health has brought a vast amount of self-care opportunities to people’s access. And the mechanisms of these materials and solutions are sometimes very playful. The exact number of how many steps you took during a day does not really matter, but the fact that people are interested in this type of information speaks of playfulness,” Hosio says.

Hosio believes that things such as VR (Virtual Reality) and chatbots will become increasingly more popular solutions in mental health-related issues. He visions that in the future, patients will receive mental health related assistance from conversational agents in VR.

On that note, Hosio and his team have recently investigated the assigning of personality traits to online chatbots. They manipulated the chatbots’ characteristics – such as sociability, conscientiousness, introversion and extroversion, and after that, they measured how engaging and captivating their research participants found the conversations with these bots. They were also trying to see which of these characteristics people perceived as essential when discussing their own mental health.

What are the essential mental health skills needed to thrive in the digitalised world?

The aspects discussed by Hylkilä, Männikkö and Hosio make one thing clear: digitalisation is here to stay, and it will require people to learn new skills that help them to utilise digitalisation in the best way possible.

Practicing resilience thinking on an individual level might be one of the solutions, but Hosio notes that resilience thinking in terms of mental health issues sometimes stems from purely economic thinking, as teaching people to help themselves is cost-effective. However, resilience thinking might still be one of the solutions that can help people to regulate their behavior better in the digital age.

In addition to resilience, Hylkilä and Männikkö also name the ability for critical reading as the other important skill. Being able to pause and reflect rather than directly internalising information at the first glance might prevent people from acquiring unreliable information related to mental health treatments, for instance.

What further research is needed on mental health and digitalisation?

Hylkilä and Männikkö agree that more longitudinal research is needed to elucidate the complex cause and effect relationships between mental health issues and problematic online behaviours, such as addictive behaviours on social media.

“We also need to work on developing valid scales that measure problematic behaviors online, and we need to develop our ways of recognising different phenomena. We still lack even some of the basic level research that could aid the recognition,” Hylkilä says.

As for the development of future solutions, Hosio proposes that more multimodal data, including, for instance gestures and facial expressions, should be gathered to develop even more scalable systems. Assigning personalities to chatbots is only the initial step, as in the future, healthcare patients will be interacting with AI-based entities who understand the patients’ unique cases and know how best to talk to them individually. In Hosio’s view, multimodal data could foster the development of these systems in a direction that could serve the patients better.

“Research that works to strengthen the cross-cultural validity of these systems is also important, as there may be cultural differences in how people respond to bots, for instance,” Hosio says.

Männikkö also expresses that engaging in digital activities, such as online gaming, is a culture-bound practice, and research should address it as such.

Besides gathering cross-cultural and multimodal data, Hosio also notes that we should be quick to react to emerging phenomena and new social media platforms.

“Doing research is often like steering a slow boat – funding applications and publishing take time to process. While all of that is happening, the trendy phenomenon and platform under inspection might not even be relevant anymore,” Hosio says.

Developing automated systems that observe social media platforms could enable researchers to quickly react to emerging phenomena, ultimately enhancing the understanding of the complex and multifaceted link between social media and mental health.

Read more about Simo Hosio’s research

Read more about the DigiWellBeing research group

Instagram: @digiwellbeing_oy

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About the experts

Krista Hylkilä is a Doctoral Researcher at the Research unit of Health Science and Technology. Hylkilä is also a nurse and MA in Health Science. In her doctoral research, Hylkilä investigates the risk factors related to excessive and problematic social media use and their effect on young adults’ psychosocial well-being.

Niko Männikkö is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Research Unit of Health Science and Technology. Männikkö’s doctoral thesis was about problematic online gaming and its effects on young adults’ well-being. Since then, Männikkö has extended his research focus to tackle other types of digital activities aside from online gaming.

Simo Hosio is an Associate Professor in the GenZ Programme at the Center for Ubiquitous Computing (UBICOMP). His group, Crowd Computing Research Group, works broadly on social computing systems and digital health.

Last updated: 14.2.2023