Digital Technologies and Mental Health Policy After #EU2019

EU policymakers are keen on driving the Digital Agenda: digital technologies are regarded as a key enabler to advance societies and the overall European economy. This includes the health care sector and health services as a whole. In fact, there are many areas where digital technologies and applications can substantially improve health care delivery. However, the growing digitalization of society also comes with challenges. Researchers and practitioners are increasingly looking at how digital technologies might affect our health and well-being.

The digitalization of society is not just about the power of data, but also about the power of attention while using digital products and services. One of the most prominent issues of concern is screen addiction. While still a relative ‘new issue’, and therefore without conclusive long-term studies to show a clear causation, some preliminary research findings link excessive use of digital technologies to a range of mental health issues including, but not limited to, depression, burn-out, sleeping problems, low self-esteem and Attention Deficit Disorders.

Some tech leaders already started to acknowledge an association between excessive screen time and diagnoses of depression and anxiety. In response developers have created initial tools for users to monitor and manage screen time via apps. A good first step, but unlikely to be the last as researchers have developed a growing interest in the impact that extensive use of digital consumption can have on mental well-being and are underlining the need for more caution regarding the use of smart phones and social media, especially among children and adolescents.

With the OECD ‘Going Digital’ and a new European Parliament and College of European Commissioners at the end of 2019, we should see a much-needed renewal of EU health policy to support European citizens in preventing, protecting and promoting their mental health and well-being. With many of the current ‘EU health policy champions’ retiring or not standing for re-election, new Members of European Parliament will stand up, but from the stakeholders side there is also a need for fresh blood and new impetus to take this approach a step further.

Technology, online platforms and social media are here to stay. We saw that in different fields: technology can bring solutions to societal issues. By the look of it, it is already the source of education for the next generations, hence why we must all work together to ensure that digital technologies remain safe for everyone. To this end, Europe could need new and more inclusive platforms where researchers, academia, public and private sector can join up and engage directly with clinicians, parents and users to have the possibility to exchange views on such important topics and ensure that future legislation are protecting consumers, while enabling digital technologies to thrive.

It is not the first time that society got disrupted by technological developments, with severe and long-lasting health consequences. The evolution in food engineering in the 20st century completely changed the way food products were developed and consumed. The explosion of fast food and exponential increase of sugar and salt intake lead us on a road to a global obesity epidemic; the consequences are only now being addressed.

Let’s not repeat history when it comes to ensuring a healthy digital consumption.