Technology and Mental Health
How lawyers are affected by devices and social media and what to do about it.
By Chris Ritter
A few years ago, I was sitting in a partner’s office discussing what he described as the “good ole days.” He told me that without question the thing that made practicing law take a nosedive in terms of lifestyle and stress was the invention of the fax machine. I was amazed to hear him describe those days and to consider how the fax and other technologies have changed practicing law in the past few decades.
If you really think about it, everything is different today. Prior to the modern era, we spent thousands of years being outside most of the time and hunting or gathering or doing physical work—not sitting sedentary at a desk stressing out over deadlines and paperwork.
Now, Americans sit behind desks and stare at screens for an average of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.1 Americans are watching more than seven hours and 50 minutes per day of television per household.2
Likewise, people are averaging 24 hours per week on the internet3 and three to four hours per day on smartphones.4
For lawyers, a group already burdened with extraordinary anxiety and mental health challenges, the impact of these uses of technology could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Lawyers already have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the U.S.5 We also experience depression 3.6 times as often as the general population.6 Furthermore, we have staggering substance use numbers (21% of all attorneys and 32% of those under 30). In 2015, a whopping 46% of 13,000 attorneys admitted struggling with depression while practicing law and most attorneys (61%) have suffered symptoms of serious anxiety disorders.7
Research: How Technology and Social Media Affect Mental
Several recent studies have examined the impact of technology and social media on mental health and the results are alarming. A 2010 study established a firm relationship between depression and text messaging and emailing.8 There is a clear link between Facebook and depression due to increased social comparison and envy or disappointment in one’s status.9
Lawyers are the ultimate multitaskers, but research indicates that multitasking is very damaging to our mental health and a root cause of depression.10
Nokia conducted a study back in 2011 that found the average person looks at his or her smartphone 150 times per day11 and there is little doubt this is worse for lawyers.
Consider these statistics regarding technology:
58% of adults and 68% of young adults do not go an hour without checking their smartphones;
73% feel panicked when they misplace their device;
54% check it in bed; 39% check it while using the toilet; and
30% check it while dining with others.12
A 2011 study showed that young adults averaged 109.5 text messages per day and over 3,200 per month.13 In 2014, adult Americans sent an average of 32 text messages per day. Three years later teens and adults sent 94 text messages per day.14 We clearly have a serious problem.
Time Spent on Screens per
Five Strategies for Lawyers to Make Healthy Changes to Their
Use of Technology
1. Set Limits
Setting some boundaries around the use of technology may be the most effective first step to establishing reasonable limits to the impact technology has on an attorney’s mental health:
Check email two to three times per day: If possible, check email when you get to work, around the lunch hour, and again toward the end of the day. This is a great way to disconnect and become more productive while also giving your mind a break from the technology overload.
Limit Social Media to 10 minutes per platform per day: One recent study indicated that limiting use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., to 10 minutes per day per platform makes a major difference in the mental health of the user.15
Monitor your use with Screen Time or another application: Shame is not a healthy tool most of the time, but in the case of making changes in the overuse of technology, the Screen Time app may just be a good thing.
While setting limits may be helpful, cutting technology off completely for periods of time is essential to good mental health.
Use Do Not Disturb: When you go to the gym or for a walk, use it. Give yourself a break from the constant interruptions from text messages, emails, and updates.
Turn off notifications: A lot of lawyers do not even know that all the “breaking news,” texts, Facebook notifications, etc., that pop up on the lock screen of a smartphone can be easily turned off. On an iPhone (and most Android phones), you can simply go to settings and select notifications and turn “off” the notifications for any application you choose.
Do not charge your phone beside bed: Lawyers lie in bed, remember something they forgot, and end up on a rabbit trail and losing sleep. Try to charge your phone in a place that would require you to get out of bed to look at it.
3. Manage the Apps
Instead of trying to “moderate” my use of apps, I can just delete the applications I waste the most time on, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Likewise, I can improve my smartphone experience by installing healthy apps, such as some of the self-care apps like Calm, Headspace, MyFitnessPal, etc.
4. Unfollow the Unhealthy
Everyone that I know has at least one or two friends on Facebook who are train wrecks. Instead of being inundated with negative messages from these people on a daily basis, unfollow them! Replace them by following new resources and people that are uplifting.
5. Plug in to Self-Care
Do you deserve 4% of your life? Four percent of your life is about one hour per day. Most lawyers I know do not take an hour per day for self-care. If we do not put it on our calendar, we usually exhaust all of our time and energy taking care of our clients and our families. For these reasons, I challenge attorneys to calendar three things a week for self-care and to explore some of the many things that can make a difference in an attorney’s wellness, such as mindfulness, gratitude journaling, service work, exercise, creative art, and more.
As we continue to strive to find a healthy balance in our lives in how we relate to technology, it is important to remember that this is only one area in which lawyers struggle. If you or a colleague are a lawyer, law student, or judge and need help, the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program is available to provide guidance and support at 800-343-TLAP (8527) or at tlaphelps.org.TBJ
is the director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program.