Digital technologies greatly influence our brains, mental health, and lives these days.
No doubt about that.
And they aren’t inherently good or bad. How we use them determines the impact they have on us. If we use digital technology with awareness and caring, online activities and interactions can be positive experiences that are yet another place for us to practice mindfulness.
Your online time doesn’t have to be “mindless.” You can approach it mindfully and practice scrolling through your feeds with conscious awareness. I encourage you to become aware of and think about how you’re using and participating in your online spaces. Interacting online gives you plenty of opportunities to practice being mindful by observing your thoughts and feelings regarding posts and comments by others and consciously exploring your emotional and mental reactions and, then, consciously, choosing your response — or not to respond.
There are always going to be posts about politics, religion, vaccines, parenting, and a million other things that you agree or disagree with — maybe even passionately. Before you fire off a comment, take the time to mindfully explore what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing. Ask yourself:
- Where do the beliefs behind what you are feeling originate?
- Are the beliefs still true for you or is it really some leftover childhood conditioning that isn’t appropriate anymore?
- Are you reacting reflexively and emotionally or responding consciously from your thinking brain?
- How do you want to proceed that is going to be in your best interest, provide the best representation of who you want to be, and use your time the most wisely?
- Is it even worth your time or energy to comment? What is the purpose or benefit for you?
As the moderator of several pages and groups on different social media platforms, I see emotional, defensive, and judgemental comments every day. I also have the opportunity to be mindful myself and not write some reactive replies almost every day — especially during election season!
That’s one way to be digitally mindful.
There are also a multitude of mindfulness and meditation apps available that claim to help you be mindful and to reap the benefits of it.
Do they work? The fact is, we do not know yet.
The research is just beginning, and we really don’t know about the effects of this technology — good or bad. Until further research, we don’t know what effect mindfulness apps might have on your brain, if any. In the meantime, I will say that I personally think they are useful teaching tools. They are introducing more people to mindfulness and changing how mindfulness is understood and practiced around the world.
At this time of writing this, the scientific evidence to prove that mindfulness technology works is just emerging — even as the apps are increasingly used as treatments for mental health issues. Science has proven that mindfulness definitely has brain and mental health benefits. We just don’t know if it does when it’s delivered via an app. For example, we need to know if using a mindfulness app has the same benefits as taking a ten-day intensive meditation course or practicing MBSR daily for three months.
The Evidence So Far
A 2021 study, involving university students and staff during the covid-19 pandemic, wrote:
As the need for large-scale, cost-effective, low-risk interventions in mental health is large and growing, our study provides crucial evidence their usability at least in a university student and staff population like the one examined in the present study. The 2020 pandemic situation has created further anxiety and stress in the society and has also made, for the time being, face-to-face mindfulness-based interventions nearly impossible to administer with restrictions on people gathering in the same space. As evidence of their benefits accumulate, mindfulness apps are likely to increasingly meet the need of people searching for peace and calm amid stormy life circumstances.”
Another 2023 review of nine studies concluded:
Based on the available studies, this meta-review shows that online MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions) may effectively improve depression, anxiety, stress, and mindfulness state among university students. Although current research exploring the effectiveness of online MBIs is still in the early stages, we conclude that there is emerging evidence that online MBIs have the potential to improve university students’ mental health. In addition, more rigorous RCTs with larger sample sizes are warranted to establish the therapeutic effects of online MBIs on mental health problems (depression, anxiety, and stress) and to improve mindfulness state and wellbeing, particularly among university students.”
Is It the Placebo Effect?
Some research has suggested that meditation app users may just be benefiting from a placebo effect. In medicine, randomized controlled trials are the long-standing scientific practice to isolate the impact of a studied medical treatment. These trials involve randomly assigning participants to either the treatment group, where they receive the experimental intervention being tested, or a control group, where they receive what is called a control condition. Control conditions can be other established treatments, no treatment at all, or a placebo. Often, a placebo is a sugar pill that is matched in size and color to the experimental medication but does not deliver any biologically active agents. After the intervention, the outcomes for the two groups are compared to see whether the thing being studied made a difference.
Placebo control groups are the gold standard because participants don’t know whether they are in the treatment group or the control group. That means they have the same expectations for improvement and side effects as the treatment group. And in fact, these expectations themselves often have a positive impact on the outcome being studied — that is what’s known as the placebo effect. But there is no sugar-pill equivalent for digital health. How do you give someone fake mindfulness instructions? Some studies are now using “sham apps” as the control, but that is challenging too because researchers do not know which features are the “active ingredients.”
Even if it is a placebo, aren’t the benefits still real?
Without placebos, it’s hard to know the real impact of treatment because studies have not accounted for the impact of people’s expectations on outcomes. Your mind is powerful, and the placebo effect is real. If you think mindfulness will make you stress less and feel better, that alone could be enough to actually make you stress less and feel better. (I question that logic though. Even if it is due to a placebo effect, aren’t less stress and feeling better real benefits?) Research on mindfulness, in general — not just with apps — struggles to incorporate placebo conditions.
Online mindfulness training can be affordable, accessible, flexible, anonymous, empowering, and enjoyable. So, there is great potential, and I am hopeful. I would encourage you to try out some of the apps and conduct your own research.
The relevant question here is “Does it help you?”
Some Ways Apps Change Mindfulness
Digital mindfulness can be a good thing, but you should be aware of some ways in which gamifying mindfulness changes the basics of practicing.
- Most apps use a paid subscription model. In one way that’s good. Subscription models rely on user dependence which reinforces mindful behavior. You are more inclined to use something you pay for, right? However, it also creates the idea that mindfulness costs money to do. It doesn’t have to.
- Apps encourage the idea that meditation is a solo practice. Throughout history, meditation was most often learned and practiced in group settings. You may prefer to practice in solitude or join a group in person or online. There are many reasons to join and benefits of joining a meditation group.
- With an app, mindfulness and meditation are always guided. They are exercises you do for a certain amount of time alone while wearing earbuds and listening to someone instruct you. While every meditation session does have a definite start and finish, mindfulness does not. It’s an ongoing practice and a mindset that ideally, you practice throughout your days and life. As you become a more experienced practitioner, it’s not really something you “do.” It becomes something you “are.”
- Mindfulness apps can sometimes imply that their brand of mindfulness or meditation is “the right” way. If you try an app and don’t connect with the style of teaching, that doesn’t mean mindfulness isn’t for you or that you’re not good at it. What is “right” is what works for you. There are many flavors of mindfulness and meditation. Find which one feels right to you.
Excellent points in this piece, Debbie. I enjoyed it tremendously. I love how you’ve encouraged us to explore the origins of our reactions when responding online. I meditate every day. I’ve never used a mindfulness app. As you say, they introduce more people to mindfulness. But they’re not required.
“As you become a more experienced practitioner, it’s not really something you “do.” It becomes something you “are.”This is the key takeaway for me Debbie. Through persistence it becomes a part of who you are, so even if you started with an app, as Sandra points out, there likely comes a time when it’s not longer required.