Technology use and mental illness in college students

Finishing a degree, whether for undergraduate studies or a post graduate program, is among the greatest challenges many of us face in our lifetimes. While this comes easy for some, for others it takes a substantial amount of effort to summon the drive needed to push through academic programs.  Aside from school work, other elements in our lives add another layer of difficulty, making this process feel impossible for many.

When coursework is coupled with attention and learning issues, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or Dyslexia, completing assignments, studying, and taking tests becomes substantially more challenging.

Unfortunately, for students with attention and learning disorders, the normal responsibilities of life are often burdensome and difficult to bear. These students are typically exhausted and depleted as they try to “make the grade” and they can have very little energy left over for other aspects of life including recreation and socializing. Too often these students become isolated and are prone to anxiety and depression.

Indeed, in a recent study from Penn State, we see that about one in every five students are afflicted by conditions such as depression and/or anxiety. Some in the academic and mental health fields are calling this recent upward trend a crisis, and rightfully so. Fortunately, there are signs that the stigma of mental illness is starting to lift. For instance, as explained in a recent article from Time, more students than ever before seek treatment for these conditions.

Though many students are proactively seeking treatment for cognitive and emotional issues, countless others are left trying to manage these conditions through other forms of coping – some healthy, and some unhealthy. All too often, stressed out students turn to the refuge of digital devices as a form of self-soothing. These devices take the form of mobile phones, computers, tablets, watches and so on. They have become inextricably entwined with life and in many ways a modern-day student cannot exist without being “plugged in” to the above devices. In fact, many colleges and universities have turned to online learning, the use of social media to communicate with students about courses, and the mandatory use of laptops for certain courses.

Of course, much in the same way there is a high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse among students with ADHD, anxiety, and depression, there is also a high rate of “digital addiction” for these students. For instance, a study in 2016 examined the relationship between technological addiction and ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety, and depression, and demonstrated that “correlations between symptoms of addictive technology use and mental disorder symptoms were all positive and significant.”

Further, it appears that overuse of technology can lead to a worsening of cognitive and emotional conditions. For example, in a study in Cyberpsychology and Behavior, it was found that internet addiction was associated with “Adult” ADHD and that there was a significant positive correlation between worsening attention problems and overuse of the internet. Additionally, a 2017 press release cited research that demonstrated a link between internet/smartphone addiction and a disruption of neurotransmitters directly related to the modulation of anxiety.

The silver lining is that for college students suffering from ADHD, learning issues, anxiety, depression, and associated technology misuse, a psychoeducational assessment can elucidate the problems at hand, determine the effects of technology abuse on cognitive and academic performance, and provide concrete solutions for overcoming these problems.

For instance, by employing different assessment measures, an assessment can determine if visual attention and information processing are worse when one is viewing information in digital versus written form. This can help provide data on whether the overuse of technology could be contributing to reduced visual information processing speed.

Additionally, our personality and emotional assessments can determine if a person has a predisposition to addiction. If a person appears to be at risk for addiction, has a history of addictive behaviors, and shows specific visual attention deficits, then treatment plans can be devised to address the underlying causes of the addiction, strategies for overcoming dependence on technology, and teaching students how to use technology in a manner that is healthy and adaptive.

Frequently, as was discussed above, technological addictions are associated with other conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and depression. At times, based upon a student’s psychoeducational profile, it may be determined that medication is indicated. When this is the case, we can make referrals to appropriate psychiatrists in a student’s local area so they can attain medications like antidepressants (e.g. Prozac or Lexapro) and/or psychostimulant medications (e.g. Adderall or Vyvanse). Often, once students are appropriately treated with medication, they will experience a lessening of addictive behaviors.

In sum, the empirical evidence to date indicates a clear link between attention and learning issues and emotional problems such as anxiety and depression. In addition, students with these conditions will often turn to technology, like smartphones and laptop computers, as a means of coping. Unfortunately, as cited above, students with ADHD and emotional disorders are more likely to misuse technology and, compounding problems further, technology misuse can make anxiety and attention problems worse (creating a vicious self-perpetuating cycle)! This struggle is seemingly inescapable because many colleges require the use of technology to participate in coursework.

If you or someone you care about appears to have an addiction to technology, our psychoeducational assessment can confirm a student’s diagnosis and outline a treatment plan that can facilitate the appropriate, non-addictive use of the myriad digital devices that are at a student’s disposal.



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