How bad are technology and social media for our mental health?

Steven Loeb · April 25, 2019 · Short URL:

Studies show that social media causes people to be more depressed and lonely

Talk of the link between the use of technology, and social media specifically, and our mental health has been going on for a long time, but it seems only recently that actual studies have been commissioned towards truly finding out what the link is. And the results don't look great for us; a study released late last year found that people who reduced their social media for 30 minutes a day had less depression and felt less lonely, as well as less anxious. 

In fact, the more people had these symptoms before, the more they were reduced once social media was no longer as much of a factor. 

It's an important topic considering how integral social media has become to our society, so it's not surprising that it came up during The Future of Mental and Behavioral Health, a salon held by Vator and UCSF Health Hub earlier this month.
It was discussed in a panel moderated by Bambi Francisco Roizen (Founder & CEO, Vator) and Archana Dubey (Global Medical Director at HP) that included three speakers: Aydin Senkut (Partner, Felicis Ventures), Sonia Arrison (Author, 100 Plus) and Dasha Maggio (Partner, Felicis Ventures).

Francisco started by bringing up an article in the New York Times entitled, "Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good," and specifically this part of the piece that dealt with the physical and emotional effects of constantly looking at screens: "Most disturbingly, the study is finding that the brains of children who spend a lot of time on screens are different. For some kids, there is premature thinning of their cerebral cortex. In adults, one study found an association between screen time and depression."

"To what extent is tech damaging our mental health?" she asked Senkut, to which he answered with an anecdote about a dinner he had recently with someone not from America, who pointed out how addicted Americans seem to be to their screens.

"He said, ‘Yeah, I lived in Silicon Valley and when I started living in Spain, I noticed something: nobody has meal in front of their device, or alone. We always have meals as a family. Kids are involved, nobody’s alone, we don’t have homelessness.’ It’s funny, this person lived around the world, on four continents, and he’s like, ‘When I came back to Silicon Valley I totally forgot that your first vision of San Francisco is homelessness, all of that. If you go to anywhere in San Francisco, if you’re eating a meal or anything, notice how many people are not having a conversation and their on their mobile device'," said Senkut.

"I don’t know if it’s the technology or the mobile device or whatever, but I certainly feel that there is some kind of an epidemic where I think that, as human beings, we definitely thrive from each other’s company and from being around people, from having a real conversation and relating to each other. I feel like that has certainly taken a huge hit."

Ultimately, he said, technology likely has had a more negative than positive impact on our lives.

Dubey then asked if tech is actually fostering an addition problem, due to the dopamine effect on the brain.

"Or are we looking at an evolution point where, in front of our eyes, the new generation or the new population in general is starting to become engaged different with the external world?" she asked.

Maggio answered by bringing up Cal Newport and his book "Deep Work," which advocates for "digital minimalism."

"Everything happens so quickly, no one had mal intentions, but, to your point, technology is inherently designed, in some ways, to be addicting. When we find ourselves picking up the phone we’re inherently taking time away from things that are really valuable to us. I agree completely with Aydin that we’re social creatures. Cal says something to the effect of, ‘We sort of fell backwards into this downward spiral that we just weren’t intending.’ It’s less of question is tech useful? Of course, so many wonderful things have come of it, it’s more about control and autonomy."

Francisco then brought up the problem in regards to social media, and the way that people represent themselves to others, which is not a fully realized picture, though others might perceive it that way.

"The problem is we are social creatures, and we go online with social media and everybody’s showing half of themselves, whereas I can sit down with Sonia, or I can sit down at the dinner table with my family, and talk about stuff that really is important. That’s probably a big downside too," she said, to which Arrison agreed.

"Facebook, you go on and people are posting things that want other people to see, so there’s this sort of one dimensional view of their life that’s not really the whole person that you would get if you were in a community setting or in an in-person setting. That, combined with the addictive nature of this, engineered into the product, is tough," Arrison said. 

Senkut took it even further, calling social media "extremely dangerous." 

"10 years ago or 20 years ago, we actually debated and discussed things, we actually read real articles and processed them. Now, things are happening in microsecond to second, we don’t even read things anymore, and there’s like 100 reactions. I think it’s bringing out the worst in us and amplifying our worst human side, versus the positive and kind of taken out that using our brain to actually filter things and debate things. I think that’s something that I’ve seen that is very disconcerting," he said. 

Ultimately, Francisco asked, if this is actually a new problem, since it it's something we've been talking about since at the least the 90s with "Prozac Nation" or if we're just hearing more about it now than we did previously.

"I wonder to what extent it’s cognitive overload. Like Aydin was saying, you see all these headlines and stuff, but you never have time to read any them, so you’re just getting all this information flashed before your eyes and you’re trying to process it all, but you’re not really processing it. There’s overload and it all sort of breaks down from there," Arrison responded.

Dubey then noted that there is data showing that passive users of social media are more depressed.

"They’re not actively communicating with social media and they are just seeing people’s personas being there and feeling ephemeral. And then it is happening in isolation. That’s another very dangerous aspect of social media, that somebody, at a tender age, or even a vulnerable state, could be going through either bullying or feeling inadequate and very isolated," she said.

"When bullying happens in a social space, there are other people who can mediate or mitigate the impact of it. When it happens in the social media space, you’re alone, and nobody else is seeing what is going through to you. So, it’s that dangerous aspect of passive usage of social media and in isolation that is has been directly linked to depression."

Senkut made the final point about how technology is affecting our brains, discussing how the idea of multitasking is actually doing people harm.

"I was trying to think, 30 years I don’t think this term multitasking existed. I was reading a New York Times article that said, ‘We think we’re multitasking, but what’s really real is that nobody’s multitasking.’ We’re basically completely destroying our brain capacity. Everybody thinks, ‘I’m driving and also doing texting and also doing this, while listening to my podcast and in my head I’m thinking about three things simultaneously.’ It’s just not happening; we have the illusion that we’re multitasking," said Senkut. 

In the end, he said, it's dehumanizing for people to act this way, almost turning them into something like mice in a lab, spinning the wheel for the promise of a little bit of food. 

Read more from our "Invent Health" series

More episodes

Related Companies, Investors, and Entrepreneurs


Archana Dubey, MD

Joined Vator on

Global Medical Director, Hewlett-Packard Enterprises

Aydin Senkut

Joined Vator on


Bambi Francisco Roizen

Joined Vator on

Founder Vator, Managing Partner - Vator Investment Club; Former Columnist/correspondent Dow Jones MarketWatch; Business anchor CBS affiliate KPIX