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Good or bad - how does our digital world affect our mental health?

We live in a digital world of online interconnectedness with information and recreation at our fingertips 24/7. A new book published by Professor Vladan Starcevic from Nepean Hospital delves into the little known world of the effect of our digital behaviours on our mental health.

Co-authored with a colleague from the US, Professor Elias Aboujaounde, Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise, brings together researchers and experts from around the world to present the good and the bad of digital technologies when it comes to mental health.

Prof Starcevic who is Head of Psychiatry at the University of Sydney Nepean Clinical School says the book, while written for mental health professionals, has the potential to be of interest to a broader audience given the pervasive presence of digital technologies in our lives.

“There’s a distinct difference between someone who plays video games a lot and someone who has a gaming addiction,” Prof Starcevic says. “Problematic online gaming can be defined as gaming that is so excessive that it results in neglecting school or work or creates conflicts in relationships, disruptive sleep patterns and unhealthy eating habits”.

“On the other hand, someone who spends a lot of time playing games online but balances this with their commitments and other activities can still function normally. This kind of behaviour is not a disorder and is relatively common in young males”, Professor Starcevic says.

The book looks further into the effects of violent video games on aggressive behaviour, problematic Internet use, cyber bullying, use of the Internet and digital technology to search for suicide methods or promote suicide and cyberchondria. The latter is related to the common practice of seeking health-related information online. “Some vulnerable people or those with pre-existing mental health issues can become alarmed or flooded with online medical information and they simply don’t know how to navigate it,” Professor Starcevic says. However, he says research into psychological disorders associated with excessive use of the Internet for searching health-related information is in early stages.

The book also explores, what Starcevic says, are the benefits of the digital technologies for people with mental health issues. “This pertains to obtaining relevant mental health information online and various forms of online psychological treatment, which has facilitated access to care. In addition, mobile electronic devices have been increasingly used for delivery of the treatment programs. Another frontier here has been the application of virtual reality in the management of various mental disorders.”  

Professor Starcevic says we are inside a living experiment because we don’t know yet what effects the changes in the way we communicate with each other, as a result of the pervasive use of social media and smartphone devices, will have on our interpersonal relationships.

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