Dr. Paul Weigle
Natchaug Hospital
Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network

Contrary to what you may think, video games, social media and related digital technology can actually improve the mental health of our younger generation.

This is not to say Little Johnny should be allowed to lock himself in the basement and play Fortnite around the clock. A “prescription” for certain video games, social media and the Internet, however, is not out of the question.

In fact, a growing body of research shows video games, social media and the Internet can help reach teens in distress and engage them in needed mental health treatment. Evidence supports the idea that specific uses of digital technology can improve behavioral health outcomes for young people, and even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A recent survey found 90% of adolescents use social media regularly; it is clear that social media have become a significant aspect of adolescent life. What isn’t clear is its impact. A number of important research findings highlight the potential pitfalls and dangers of excessive social media and video game habits on the physical, psychological and cognitive well-being of youth.

However, emerging theories describe how social media can be an adaptive expression of normal childhood and adolescent development, helping fulfill needs to practice identity formation and establish close bonds with peers.

Mental health clinicians must differentiate individuals with healthy digital habits from those whose use puts them at risk of psychological harm – and be aware of important online resources.

The reality is that none of these technologies is going away any time soon. So rather than fight the rising tech tide, behavioral health professionals should use it to their advantage when they can. Here is what we know:

  1. For young people receiving behavioral health care, using online interests to engage them in their own care can improve the clinician-patient relationship and ultimately improve social connections, coping skills and access to safety resources.
  1. Evidence indicates certain commercial video games designed to treat mental illness and improve health, promote physical activity, train specific cognitive functions and enhance psycho-education can be effective. The federal Food and Drug Administration is reviewing one such product for approval as the first video game treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
  1. Online resources and smart phone applications that enable parental controls, monitor medication compliance, mood, and sleep, as well as those that teach mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral skills, can enhance well-being and promote healthy screen habits.

We frequently hear about the downsides of our increasingly technological world – especially regarding young people. But this technology can be incorporated into routine mental health treatment in many ways to improve the quality of care.