Q&A: Technology and its influence on your wellbeing

14 Sep 2016

As the Technology for Wellbeing Conference prompts discussion in Dublin, we spoke with ReachOut Ireland’s Naoise Kavanagh about some of the important topics and issues addressed.

Today (14 September), ReachOut Ireland hosts its fourth Technology for Wellbeing Conference in The Marker Hotel, Dublin.

One of the key goals of this event is to bring together a community of people who believe that technology is essential to improve public mental health and wellbeing.

Future Human

Ahead of the big day, we spoke with Naoise Kavanagh, online communications manager for ReachOut.com, about the event and the issues it addresses.

Inspirefest 2017

Tell us about the Technology for Wellbeing Conference and why it’s happening.

One of the key aims of the conference is to bring together a community of people who genuinely believe in the importance of technology in improving public mental health and wellbeing.

The previous three Technology for Wellbeing conferences have led to some effective collaborations, and showcased some innovative uses of technology in the areas of wellbeing and preventing suicidal behaviour – not just for young people, but all ages.

What kind of discussions have you had about mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention at previous events?

Over the years the conference has been running, we’ve heard from a mix of researchers and practitioners in the area of technology, mental health and suicide prevention.

We’ve had presentations about connected healthcare, and how technology can play an active role in self-management and care practices to improve the quality of life of those with dementia.

Software platform developers shared how they deliver a range of engaging and effective clinician-supported mental health interventions.

Online counselling practitioners, online safety experts, and people from large tech and social media companies have presented about effective use of their products in the area of mental health.

We’ve had presentations about the concept of online sharing and its impact on communication, identity and the self.

Last year, we had a demonstration about the use of biosensors and gaming for stress reduction.

What role do you think technology plays in our general wellbeing?

The internet has facilitated mental health conversations by allowing anonymity and communication with no time or location restrictions. We know these are still factors affecting people reaching out for help while online: accessibility, anonymity and, in some cases, low to no cost.

Online mental health supports are also scalable and, in some cases, easily customised to suit different audiences.

There is also an increase in the use of mindfulness and wellbeing apps, and there is a clearly an appetite for using technology for self-management of mental health. Not all are created equal, though, so people should do some research into the programmes they undertake.

Do you think there is a tendency to demonise technology’s impact on our wellbeing?

Yes. There is also a growing anxiety about privacy, internet ethics, cyber-safety for all and the impact of social media, particularly on teenagers.

There’s a concern that our increased connectivity is the root of all our problems.

There is also dismissiveness about our online lives, as it’s not in ‘real life’.

On the flip side of that, are you wary of an over-reliance on technological solutions to complex problems?

Like everything in life, our use of technology is all about balance. We do all need to learn to manage this relationship to get the best out of it and not feel that it has a hold over us.

The draw of social media, in particular, is not just something young people have to watch. Spending large parts of your day trying to the get the right selfie, spending your entire weekend online gaming – no one is saying these are good things. It is about management.

We do speak with a lot of young people who have issues with social media in that they can’t switch off, but they’re sick of it. They’re sick of the messages and pressures they feel they get from it and, when they feel unable to switch off, it is a negative experience that creates problems.

What are the key areas the Technology for Wellbeing conference will explore, and why?

Social media and identity is a strong theme of the conference and comes out in many of the talks, whether that’s overall topic or not. There is huge interest in the psychodynamic of online sharing.

Online safety – in terms of children, providing healthcare and general use – is also a key area.

Other themes that will be covered, and which are topics of concern to the public and not just those working in the area of mental health and wellbeing, are:

  • Innovation in technology and mental health
  • Suicide prevention and the internet
  • Mental health promotion and public messaging online
  • National policy in technology and mental health
  • Technology, cyber-safety and young people

What are you most looking forward to at the conference?

The CEO of ReachOut Australia, Jonathan Nicholas, is over to speak at the conference. ReachOut Australia was the world’s first online mental health service, just over 18 years ago.

Jonathan will be talking about the youth mental health landscape in Australia. There are many similarities between Ireland and Australia, so it’s great to have him over.

He will also be reporting on one of the world’s largest cohort studies of online mental health service users and a randomised controlled trial of an assisted decision-making online tool called ReachOut NextStep. We are currently developing plans to adapt ReachOut NextStep for young people in Ireland.

There’s a really diverse mix of break-out sessions too.

What outcomes do you hope for?

Greater investment and collaboration in digital solutions for mental health and wellbeing. Shared knowledge in the area of technology and mental health, so we can work together to fill any gaps in mental health needs and not duplicate efforts.

Outside of this week’s conference, what other work does ReachOut do to improve wellbeing through technology?

ReachOut Ireland runs ReachOut.com, which helps young people (aged 12 to 25 years old) get through tough times by providing information, support and advice on mental health, signposting and explaining mental health services available, and promoting positive mental health.

ReachOutParents.com launched two years ago to help parents support young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

We developed a native phone app called WorkOut app, which is available on the App Store and Google Play. The app is based on CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) principles to help users with goal-setting, managing stress, regulating sleep and more.

We also run an online peer-moderated mental health literacy platform for anyone working with young people.

Young people using technology image via Shutterstock

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic