Big Tech and Mental Health

While many of the companies highlighted on Mind Monkey tend to be startups which haven’t yet generated much revenue, let alone much profit, there is also innovation being done by the behemoths of the tech industry: Alphabet (Google), Amazon, and Facebook.

These companies have an outsized influence on many aspects of contemporary life, and mental health is no exception. So what are these companies doing about the mental health of their employees and their customers?

Alphabet

Several years ago, Alphabet hired the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, to its Life Sciences group. Insel subsequently moved on to co-found his own company (Mindstrong), but mental health remains a part of Alphabet’s vast portfolio.

One fascinating internal project is Google’s Blue Dot initiative, where employees are trained and designated as “listeners” – for when their fellow employees just need someone to lend an empathetic ear. The project does not purport to be a replacement for therapy, depends on employee volunteers, and – most remarkably at all – does not gather analytics. At a time when a number of companies are offering high-powered employee wellness programs, it is striking that one of the largest tech companies at all is offering a service that is so minimal and human-driven.

Amazon

Amazon is another company intertwined with our everyday lives, and as such a potential force in mental heath. Perhaps the place where Amazon’s reach is most apparent is its Alexa device. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Alexa now has a “skill” – roughly, a program – that is aimed at promoting mental health.

The skill is called The Difference. It does indeed seem like a radically new approach to therapy. When someone is feeling like they need to talk to a therapist, they simply request one from their Alexa. According to their materials, callers who contact The Difference between 9 AM and 9 PM will be connected to a live voice call with a therapist in 30 minutes or less. Patients can pay by session or subscribe if they are more frequent users.

The Difference is in beta, but if it’s product delivers then it promises to be a major Alexa-centric innovation in the mental health space.

Facebook

Facebook is notable for the direct effects its products are claimed to have on mental health, both negative and positive. Several researchers have argued that regular Facebook use is associated with poor mental health outcomes. There is also research, however, suggesting that Facebook has positive effects on mental health as well, and Facebook itself has introduced tools intended to promote positive conversations around mental health among its users.

The more salient issue in 2019, however, may be the effect that Facebook’s Instagram has on its users. And the news here is discouraging. One recent study suggests that Instagram is the worst of all social media for mental health. The topic is one that demands further research, but given the prominence of Instagram in the next generation of social media, the issue is one that calls for some measure of concern.

Summary

The effects of big tech companies on our daily lives are many and varied, and so to are their impact and involvement in mental health. The questions raised in this post are just a few of the many that this topic presents.

Note: The contents of this post are for informational purposes only. This is not professional medical advice and it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a physician with any questions that you have about a medical condition, including a mental health condition. If you think you are in a medical emergency, call 911 or your local emergency services number immediately.

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