Each year, more than 20% of college students worldwide report a mental health disorder in the preceding 12 months. About 80% of these issues begin in high school, before matriculation, and can compromise young adults’ chances for completing college. Clinicians and researchers agree that addressing mental health issues early is best for recovery and long-term health, and yet many high schools and colleges remain ill-equipped to manage what seems like an increasingly symptomatic student population. Could technology be a part of the solution?
The reasons we are seeing more mental health issues among young adults are not completely clear. Many parents worry that increased cell phone and computer usage at younger and younger ages may be to blame. Given the average teenager spends as much as nine hours per day online, some families are concerned about children becoming isolated, over-exposed to violent content and even addicted to their electronic devices. Moreover, recent evidence suggests a causal link between nighttime cell phone usage and subsequent reductions in self-esteem and increased anxiety and depression among teens. Yet, even as parents may want to restrict access to electronic devices, gaming companies continue to capture the imagination of young people with hours of simulated convoluted chases, violent battles and life-and-death decisions.
Add to this the expected stress that accompanies a student’s first time away at college or the pressure that can come with studying and pursuing academic goals, and we see why college-bound students may have trouble succeeding in school.
But before we dismiss all technology as exacerbating mental health challenges among adolescents and young adults, let’s check again. If young people are spending nine hours a day online, technology also offers a channel of communication that can promote mental well-being on college campuses. More than a dozen studies have shown that various web-based tools can be effective in reducing anxiety, depression and stress. Many deliver aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) online and college students have reported enjoying the easy access and privacy of web-based sessions.
Some colleges have begun to use Mental Health Apps (applications) as a supplement to the work that is done in therapy or to assist with self-care. While most caution that apps are not to be used to substitute for person to person therapy support, experts recognize that they can be useful. Apps include a portable stress management tool for iPhone and Android devices, a series of self-help methods used based on the tools of CBT that challenge irrational thinking, and an app that contains a list of 6 different good quality nature relaxing sounds (sounds of nature) for personal audio therapy.
And, researchers working with a major university have developed a digital tool, which provides education and support to students. It boosts mental health support on campus by allowing those who take a survey to receive tailored resources based on individual needs and preferences indicated through their responses.
Technology does not have to be the demon in this story; rather, it can also be a key to addressing the devastating and costly effects of mental health issues among young adults. What if we could combine the appealing—even addictive—nature of electronic games with the health-promoting CBT and other tools that have been proven effective web-based supports for those at risk of depression and anxiety? And what if such efforts could be integrated into the way high school and even middle school develop students’ capacities to use and benefit from the internet?
It seems we have the tools; we just need the will and creativity to direct them at issues that matter—like the health and well-being of the next generation.