Liam Hill, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health.

Why I’m alarmed by the alarmism around technology and our mental health

13 November 2018

Part of my role at Money and Mental Health is to trawl the media each morning for stories we might want to engage with or respond to. This takes in articles from across the health, consumer finance and technology pages of our most popular media outlets. And one of the most striking things is that each day I read story after story about how social media and other aspects of new technology are increasing stress, undermining our mental health, and are generally the scourge of any attempt at culture, conversation, meaningful interaction or fulfilment.

These concerns are also high on the political agenda. This morning, for example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is hearing evidence as part of its ongoing inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health.

Moral Panic?

It’s entirely understandable that people are worried about about new technology, and about the worrying developments that seem to have gone hand-in-hand with them, such as the rise in cyberbullying.

Moreover, technological changes have always brought moral panic, and not without reason. Some of our current technophobic instincts about artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, fake news and bot farms are just an extension of permanent and inescapable questions about the future. It’s entirely reasonable to ask questions like ‘what will work look like for future generations?’ or ‘is the onwards advance of technology compromising our security, our democracy or our liberty?’

But in recognising the validity of these concerns, we shouldn’t overlook the the exciting possibilities that new technology offers to better support people struggling with their mental health, and to empower people to make choices about their wellbeing and their finances.

Variety is the spice of life

I realise I have started with some big questions, so let’s zero in a little. Despite the perennial concerns about how technology will reshape our lives, in the main rapid technological advances have injected variety and choice into our lives and the marketplace. Granted, there are some pretty major monopolies in the tech sector, but even those monopolies translate into, or facilitate, greater consumer choice than in previous eras.

For example, our research has highlighted the sheer proportion of people who experience at least one sign of anxiety when communicating with essential services providers. Greater consumer choice about communication methods should be able to help service providers prevent their customers falling into arrears, or to tailor and structure repayments in a way that supports recovery or reduces anxiety about communication and financial management.

For every concern in previous iterations of our societal technophobia – think cathode rays and square eyes – we have eventually arrived at a state of acceptance and started worrying about The Next Big Thing. And for every alarming story about the oncoming technocalypse, most days a story goes untold about some of the small but significant ways technology can be harnessed to improves our lives, especially our mental health or our bank balances.

There's an app for that...

One recent example is how the advances of our digital era have enabled people who recognise they have a problem with gambling to block gambling transactions on their own bank cards. As our previous policy work has shown, there is also the potential to make better use of big data to identify people who are struggling with their finances and spending, and who might need support. No doubt there will be questions about how this data is stored and used, but here is a plain example of how technology can improve the lives of people at risk of problem spending, and keep people out of a cycle of problem debt.

Equally, advancements in technology in the financial services sector are creating huge opportunities to change how people use banks and access their money in a way that empowers their customers, including people with mental health problems. Fintech has created tools to help people to structure and visualise their budgets, place limits on potentially harmful spending or notify themselves or third parties about spending activity.

Embracing change

Whether we like it or not, technological advancement continues apace. There are so many opportunities to harness this change to benefit people who might otherwise be vulnerable to falling into problem debt, and then into the vicious cycle that reinforces problem debt and poor mental health. Maybe it’s time to embrace the change, rather than resist it.