Technology in Psychological Assessment, Mental Health, and Wellness

In today’s technology-driven world, our lives are surrounded by various digital gadgets. Just like every other sector, technology is also used as a tool in assisting psychologists globally in numerous ways. It is used to diagnose disorders, formulate treatments, and conduct research, etc.

While these gadgets have eased our lives, their ever-increasing dependency is actually impacting our psychology in ways we don’t even realize. Technology is thus exposing people to new psychological disorders which are increasing challenges for psychologists. The way technology is being used is making a difference.

To list a few negative impacts of technology on an individual’s psychology, mental health, and wellness:

1. Effect of Social Media: People usually use the internet to search for information, check their email and most importantly surf social media like Facebook and Twitter. Social media is a virtual communication platform to connect people with their friends and family across the world. However, it does influence our psychology in a negative way if one tends to overuse it; for it then drains an individual’s energy and also evacuates his cognitive resources. With the easy accessibility of smartphones and affordable internet top-ups provided by telecom companies, almost everyone can access social media today. According to a study, users check their phones about 221 times a day on average.

2. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): It is a major psychological challenge faced by social-media users. FOMO is a kind of social anxiety. It is a desire to stay online and connected 24x7 so that they don’t miss what others are doing. It is also viewed as a fear of regret; people fear that they might miss an important social interaction, investment, etc. FOMO is correlated with worsened mood states and also lower satisfaction from life. (Baker et. al., 2016). It is experienced mostly by younger generations. Individuals residing in tech–reliant cultures often experience FOMO.

3. Computer addiction: It is characterized by excessive or compulsive use of computers. This overuse hampers the personal, social, and occupational life of individuals. Computer addiction involves online and offline gaming addiction, social media addiction, etc. Computer addicted people need their gadgets first thing in the morning, and last thing before they go off to bed. Using computers and similar gadgets as a source of entertainment has replaced all previous hobbies for a lot people. Such individuals are ignoring physical activities and prefer staying at home, which in turn pushes them towards other physical problems like obesity.

According to a psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a Ph.D. scholar, Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, “Technologies are becoming so much easier to use, and the cost has come way down.” Digital technology simply means use of computers, internet, mobile devices such as smartphones, and mobile software applications (apps) for treatment of psychiatric illness. Researchers have designed digital treatments for depression and most kinds of anxiety disorders, and for problems such as insomnia (Anderson & Titov, 2014). Some interventions are viewed as educational programs rather than treatments, and such interventions deliver the intervention in the form of “lessons”, not “sessions”.

Technology is changing the way researchers are studying human behaviour and the brain. Psychologists are now using new technologies that are helping researchers in conducting their researches out of the laboratory. This way, psychological theories can be tested in natural settings. Right from assessing a patient to maintaining his well-being, psychologists use various technologies.

Ahead, we will explore the use of technology in psychological assessment, mental health, and wellness.

Key instances of technology use:

1. Conducting research: Conducting research and the methodology it uses is a tedious job. It starts with selecting a theme, post which the researcher identifies participants for the research, as well as the tools and mode of administration. Hence the intervention of technology like the internet, emails, smartphones etc. to tackle this tedious task helps the researcher in data collection from multiple participants conveniently. Once data is collected, a researcher starts analyzing the results, which is a job that can’t be done by technology. Fortunately, there is a lot of software like SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences), R foundation for statistical computing; SAS (Statistical Analysis Software), etc. which are used by the researcher to statistically sift through the data with ease. Tools like MS Excel also help in organizing large data. On the other hand, the internet is used for reviewing literature. It thus is needless to say that conducting effective research without the use of technology doesn’t seem possible.

2. Assisting in the Diagnosis of Psychiatric Illness: Psychologists and researchers are using innovative ways to collect psychological data about patients like their emotional and mental states.[SA1] For example equipment like MRIs, fMRIs, EEGs etc.

3. Galvanic Skin Response (GSR): An easy to use tool used to measure stress. Galvanic Skin Response sensors contain two electrodes that are placed on the fingers of a patient to differentiate between conductance of his skin to indicate whether he is in stress or not. The result appears on a computer.

4. Assessment of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder in Children: In this case, a child wears a virtual reality headset and he finds himself in a stimulated room. He is then asked to perform certain tasks such as watching the teacher draw a particular sequence of letters on the chalkboard. While the child watches this, the background becomes more distracting. The distraction could be a bus going by outside the window, or kids passing notes. The distractions are being called by the researcher as it helps him to pinpoint the types of attention problems the child has. According to the researchers, assessments which are done through virtual system correlate with findings derived from traditional offline psychological test measures found in people with ADHD (Child Neuropsychology, Vol. 13, №4, 2007) as well as people with Autism (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 46, №4, 2016). The virtual test in fact goes one step further. It also measures elements of distraction such as how much a child moves his head or fidgets. If the child fails to notice the teacher writing letters on the board, the virtual test can help explain why. “We can see whether the child is looking at the teacher but missing the target, or if they are looking out the window and missing it. Are they distracted, or is there a loss of focus? Those are two fundamentally different types of errors,” Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, says.

5. Video-based Assessments: Researchers are also using video-based assessments from the beginning to measure function difficulties in people suffering from dementia, gauge individuals’ cravings for drugs and alcohol, and also evaluating job candidates’ skills as well as abilities. Parsons, a researcher, has designed a virtual grocery store simulation that runs on a laptop. Using the virtual environment, the researcher can test the memory as well as executive function in people who are having cognitive deficits, such as older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. The participants’ scores correlated with traditional offline neuropsychological assessments of memory. And as predicted, older adults performed more poorly than younger adults (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Vol. 59, №4, 2017).

6. Virtual Reality (VR): Patrick Bordnick uses VR for assessing as well as treating people suffering from substance-use disorders. In one of the studies, Bordnick has confronted smokers with a virtual environment fabricated to elicit nicotine cravings, such as office building courtyards where people take a smoke break and convenience stores where cigarettes are being sold. He found that participants responded strongly to those cues with increased cigarette cravings (The American Journal on Addictions, Vol. 17, №5, 2008). This highlights that the VR environment is useful for assessing a person’s reactivity to alcohol cues (Addictive Behaviours, Vol. 33, №6, 2008) and cannabis cues (Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 41, №2, 2009). Virtual Reality also help clinicians how well different coping skills work to prevent patients from acting on those urges, says Bordnick. “Virtual Reality is a method that brings real-world contexts into a lab or clinic so that professionals can understand relapse better and also teach people skills to the patients to empower them not to be a victim of relapsing.” he says.

7. ACE: Gazzaley has developed many games that can be used to assess as well as improve cognitive abilities. One such mobile cognitive-assessment tool is called ACE (Adaptive Cognitive Evaluation). Once players complete a series of games, the system will assess different aspects of the player’s cognitive functions including sustained attention, working memory, selective attention, and task switching — abilities. These processes are the foundation of all higher cognitive functions. According to Gazzaley, ACE is able to add strength and change the difficulty level based on people’s performance and show the threshold of their abilities.

8. Therapy: AbilTo is a program that is used by practitioners to deliver psychological help to patients via phone/Skype/web conferencing. This remote program focuses on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy treatment to people who are recently diagnosed with some medical issues like diabetes, cardiac events, cancer, anxiety, depression, etc. and are usually stuck at home. This allows patients to work on their mental health despite their physical limitations. It is also effective in situations where people are fearful of the stigma attached with psychiatric illness. Some clients due to their psychiatric illness believe that they are seen by a neighbor or friend when they are going to visit a therapist. It gives a level of comfort to the patient. Another advantage of this program is logistics and time management. This program is cost-effective for both the therapist and client as well.

9. Online clinic: Online clinics like MindSpot is very popular these days. MindSpot is a government-funded national online treatment service for Australian adults with anxiety or depression (Titov et al., 2015). This platform provides information and advice to patients through email or over the telephone and, if required, it also supplies digital treatments with or without external input. There are a lot of advantages for online clinics which are mentioned below: -

· Easy accessibility

· Comfortable sessions from anywhere

· Enhancing healthcare systems

10. ACE: It [SA2] is a tablet-based cognitive assessment tool that helps to study executive function. These customized Neuroscape video games use adaptive algorithms that adjust the difficulty level of the game, allowing researchers to use the same exact cognitive tasks for children of all ages across experiments, and across time. Critically, this allows high-precision, high-dimensional measurement of cognition across development.

11. Joint modeling: It creates models around the obtained behavioral measures. It also determines how they relate to brain structure and function. A researcher’s ultimate goal is to create a sustainable cognitive enhancement loop whereby each child receives the most effective intervention (technology mediated or curriculum-based) to enhance their executive functioning — ultimately improving their learning, education, and life outcomes.

12. Aging and Technology: In a field-based research conducted by Czaja’s, it was demonstrated that technology like video-phones can enable older adults to avoid social isolation, and also improve their access to vital medical services and caregivers. Czaja and her colleagues found that providing caregivers with access to interventions such as counseling via the phone was linked to many positive results, including a reduced sense of burden.

13. Prism: It is a custom software system designed to deliver help to older adults who are in their homes and socially isolated. After a year, it was found that the participants not only learn how to use a computer but also felt less isolated and even reported raised emotional well-being.

Note: Logistic challenges can also overcome by using technology. According to the researcher, Czaja, technology facilitates access to services, socialization, and information to help people psychologically in numerous ways.

14. Virtual Humans: The researchers at Jonathan Gratch’s lab at the University of Southern California builds interactive Virtual Humans reminiscent of sentient robots on a television show “Westworld.” People interact with these virtual humans and the researchers examine the theoretical implications. These virtual humans are successful in making people learn negotiation tactics, to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors, and to help people disclose symptoms that could lead to the diagnosis of a stigmatized mental illness. Gratch’s team trained a machine-learning algorithm to mimic the verbal and non-verbal habits of non-judgmental listeners. This was build using the principles of social psychological theory. Using a camera and microphone, this social agent also tracked relevant social information from their human partner’s voice, facial expressions, posture, and gestures in real-time. A recent study found that in answering questions related to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, people disclosed twice as much intimate information to the virtual listener compared to what could be revealed from an official online disclosure session.

15. Improving Attention: According to psychological scientist Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine, “Working in a digital environment made people polychromic.” Polychromic means multitasked. Due to the use of the internet, people have started working on multiple tasks at once. Mark explained the reason behind it. “Human beings are not literally working on multiple tasks once; they are just switching their attention very rapidly between various sources of info.” In a study conducted by Mark and colleagues, it was found that while people are working on their job, they had a median attention duration of about 40 seconds. That is, they spent around 40 seconds on any given window on their computer before switching to something different.

Technology resources and tools supplement traditional counseling services as it helps counselors reaching larger populations. By using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, information on healthy living can be reached to millions across the globe. Let’s find few ways, how:

1. Free blood alcohol calculator: This apps gives an estimate of blood alcohol content in your body based on the drinks logged in. This will further tell when you are going beyond the legal limits. Optionally it can even track the cost of drinking. This is the best tool that can be used by patients to keep a track of their alcohol consumption. It will also make the person realize and accept that he is suffering from alcoholism.

2. Mindfulness meditation MP3s/iTunes: These audio can be used in the sessions by the psychologists. The psychologist will ask the clients to talk about their experiences while they are listening to the MP3s and practicing the meditations and then finally will fabricate a treatment plan that includes their use of the meditations outside of the counseling sessions.

3. Telehealth platforms: Text messaging and phone calls is also an efficient way by means of which counsellors connect with their clients. Telehealth platforms bought a revolution in counselling as it gives an option of instant messaging as well as video calling.

4. Sentio Solutions: An emotion-sensing wristband, Sentio Solutions is a device recently launched in the market. It has integrated biosensors that are proficient in monitoring a user’s physiological signals throughout the day. Paired with an accompanying cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) app, this wrist band aims to help those suffering from anxiety and depression.

5. Mindfulness and meditation apps: There are many mindfulness and meditation apps like Headspace, Calm and female-focused Sanity & Self. These apps provide audio tracks. After listening to such audio tracks, the individuals feel relaxed which in turn strengthens the mental resilience of an individual. Many times, these apps are often paired with breathing exercises, visual aids and journaling guides.

6. Wisdo: Israeli social network Wisdo is also an app which connects individuals to peers, mentors and professionals struggling [SA3] with mental conditions, as well as those who are overcoming difficult emotional situations.

7. Mindstrong: It is another application that analyses the way users are interacting with their phones. They make this analysis by noticing what individuals are typing and scrolling on their phones. This enables them to identify the user’s mood states. Its machine learning is able to detect a wide range of potential mental health patterns. Mindstrong is being tested on California patients through the state’s public mental health system.

Conclusion: After reviewing all the researchers and work done to integrate Technology and Psychology, I would like to conclude by saying that technology is our friend as well as our foe. The way we are using technology is actually making a difference. The technology if used just for entertainment, will cause more harm than good. Technology used by psychologists for research purposes is absolutely indispensable. The use of technology in treatment and diagnosis of psychological disorders is doing miracles and is thriving many other scientific branches open. Virtual humans, video games, digital technology are acting as assistants for the researcher and make their diagnosis and treatment more accurate. Many areas that cannot be understood by the use of offline psychological testing methods, technology makes available. A lot of work still needs to be done in this field as many researchers continue to work on this. It is really important for budding researchers to stayup-to-date and keep on exploring how they can use technology to be efficient and at the top of their game.

References:

How does technology affect mental health? (2020, February 20). Bradley University Online. https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/how-does-technology-affect-mental-health/

How does technology affect users’ psychology? (2020, February 18). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-first-impression/202002/how-does-technology-affect-users-psychology

How technology shapes thoughts, feelings, and actions. (n.d.). Association for Psychological Science — APS. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/how-technology-shapes-thoughts-feelings-and-actions

The impact of digital technology on psychological treatments and their dissemination. (n.d.). ScienceDirect.com | Science, health and medical journals, full text articles and books. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796716301371

Mental wellness and technology: Rethinking the relationship. (2020, January 30). Global Wellness Summit. https://www.globalwellnesssummit.com/2020-global-wellness-trends/mental-wellness-and-technology/

Myrecek. (n.d.). AlcoDroid alcohol tracker — Apps on Google Play. Google Play. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.M.alcodroid&hl=en

Psychological testing and assessments are going high-tech. (n.d.). https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/07-08/ce-corner

Three ways technology has affected the Field of psychology | CareersinPsychology.org. (2016, June 14). Psychology Careers | CareersInPsychology.org. https://careersinpsychology.org/three-ways-technology-affected-field-psychology/

Shreya, a student in Year 13 doing the IB at The British School, New Delhi. Passionate about Psychology and making knowledge more accessible.