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Aspen Institute Panelists Discuss Technology’s Role in Combatting Mental Illness

Jericho Casper

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Photo of Rutgers University Assistant Professor Brittney Cooper in 2017 by New America used with permission

August 13, 2020 —  As a result of 2020’s myriad challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread economic instability and a societal reckoning with inequality, mental health issues are on the rise across various populations.

This moment of heightened loneliness and mental health crises underscores the innate need humans have to connect with one another.

To explore the present and future of social relations, the Aspen Institute held a webinar on Thursday entitled “Virtually Alone: The Future of Human Connectivity,” in which panelists came to the conclusion that technology both helps and hinders the ability to connect and maintain meaningful relationships.

Many users who logged onto Instagram this week were met with a promotional banner leading to mental health resources.

The feature is one of many that Instagram has implemented after a 2017 survey by Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health ranked it as the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing.

However, efforts like these may not be enough to counter the social health crisis being brought about by the pandemic, panelists said, and if Instagram’s top priority is truly user wellbeing, it certainly has its work cut out for it.

“The loneliest demographics are millennials,” said Dan Buettner, journalist, producer, and National Geographic Fellow, adding that loneliness “peaked after 2011, when handheld devices became ubiquitous.”

“It’s a correlation,” he noted.

Research conducted by Robin Hewings, director of campaigns, policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, found that having access to technology eased loneliness during COVID-19, as individuals were able to mitigate feelings of loneliness by utilizing applications such as video calls.

“Digital tools allow you to find your people wherever you are, but even people who are connected can feel as though they are unheard,” said Brittney Cooper, assistant professor at Rutgers University.

Technology can both mitigate and amplify existing conditions, depending on use and application, she explained.

“In this sense, technology has combatted one part of the loneliness problem and enhanced another,” Cooper said. “Social media can be a very tough mirror.”

“Sometimes, the basis of online social connections can be unhealthy, especially when this is powered by unrighteous rage,” she continued. “We need to take a critical eye to how and why we form connections online.”

“Looking for an answer to loneliness in a gadget is misguided,” Buettner argued, although he later added that he was perhaps being too harsh on technology.

Creating safer spaces for interaction should be a priority, Hewings concluded.

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