Digital technologies play an increasingly central role in our lives and have a major impact on our mental health. The Asociación de Tecnología, Educación, Desarrollo, Investigación y Comunicación (Association for Technology, Education, Development, Research and Communication – TEDIC), an APC member organisation in Paraguay, takes this as its starting point when working on “technostress”, a phenomenon that is affecting an increasingly large segment of the population, particularly younger people.
“The COVID-19 pandemic shed more light on a phenomenon that we have been watching for some time: people spend an enormous amount of time in front of screens,” explained Eduardo Carrillo, co-director of TEDIC, during an interview with APC. TEDIC has been focusing on the impact of the increasing use of technologies on mental health since mid-2020 with the support of resources such as an APC subgrant.
A good part of the world’s population spends hours online or in front of a screen. We connect to platforms that are frequently designed to keep us connected for as long as possible. This excessive screen time is related to increased anxiety, depression, stress and other psychosocial risks. These considerations lead to many questions. How much screen time is too much? Are there different types of online activities? How can we promote healthy habits among children and adolescents?
TEDIC has been addressing these issues through the campaign “Mente en línea” (“Mind Online”) in collaboration with the Paraguayan Health Ministry. Designed to be an open, ongoing community learning experience, it focuses on practices that encourage use of technology that is beneficial for our mental health.
A matter of public policy
“The first thing we need to understand is that mental health is a matter that should be addressed through comprehensive public policies. Nowadays, that should include a digital component,” explains Carrillo. He adds that one of the main challenges in Paraguay is the limited number of mental health professionals available per capita. “The Health Ministry is very much involved in this issue in spite of that. During the pandemic, the Ministry’s social media presence became a key channel, and it was important for people to have access to accurate information and trustworthy links.... They worked with our organisation and other experts to build that trust,” he notes.
Ministry representatives highlight the importance of prevention and promotion in addition to diagnoses. “Excessive use can damage young people’s development. It is key to work on limits and to do so from the first stage of contact with screens,” explains Zuyi Suarez, the director of Children’s and Adolescent Health at the Ministry, in this video that is part of the “Mente en línea” campaign.
Fanzines reach younger audiences
In addition to centring mental health and digital experiences in the area of public policy, TEDIC highlights the importance of raising awareness and educating the population. In an effort to reach as many people as possible through creative and accessible initiatives, the “Mente en línea” campaign includes podcasts and fanzines as well as other resources developed in collaboration with experts on children and adolescents from organisations like UNICEF and Enfoque Niñez (an NGO) and schools from throughout the country.
“The fanzines are turning out to be a particularly useful tool for reaching young people and their families,” explains Ana Maldonado, who oversees TEDIC’s gender, technology and community projects.
The first fanzine, “Tecnoestrés y enganche digital” (“Technostress and Digital Attachment”), introduces the concept of digital attachment and explains what it does and how to reduce it. Recommendations include charging devices far from where you are sitting or outside of the bedroom, sending audio notes or calling instead of texting, and downloading applications or extensions that help reduce online distraction.
The second instalment in the series, “Detox digital y salud mental en tiempos de covid” (“Digital Detox and Mental Health in Times of COVID”), focuses on how the brightness of the screens, portability of devices, and the nature and type of content that we consume play a role in connecting our brain to certain activity flows that hinder sleep. Recommendations for disconnecting, detoxing and caring for each other in digital environments include cultivating assertive communication and balancing institutional, personal and collective time.
The third issue, “Telecuidados de salud mental” (“Mental Health Telecare”), introduces the concept of “telecare”, which involves using information and communication technologies to provide health care virtually.
The last fanzine in the series, “Nuestra vida en las pantallas” (“Our Life on Screens”), was created for parents and caregivers in collaboration with APC. Its main recommendation is to negotiate and reach agreements with children and teens regarding screen time based on their needs and the degree to which screens are displacing physical and social activities and sleep.
The campaign (particularly the fanzines) has been a hit based on the large number of downloads and the number of people who have contacted the organisation. Many of those who have reached out are not part of its regular audience. Maldonado explains, “We’ve received an enormous number of messages through social media and digital platforms around the fanzines. People share very personal information with us that points to being overwhelmed by virtual life and loneliness.” TEDIC uses these initial contacts to refer people to professionals who can help them.
The fanzines were very well received at the eighth edition of the “Calle Cultura” (“Culture Street”) fair, an event designed to reclaim public life as a shared space from which to build a friendlier and more inclusive city. Maldonado spoke with young people and families who contacted the campaign and explained that they are trying to implement rules around technology in their homes. They said that this process is hindered by children’s excessive online practices.
Work with families and schools
In addition to working directly with young people, TEDIC highlights the importance of involving parents and educators. “Many parents are afraid of technology. TEDIC approaches it as a useful tool that helps create knowledge and allows us to have fun and share things with friends and digital communities, and we recommend getting comfortable with it.” Starting from there, it is possible to address healthy limits and uses.
“We were able to discuss the issue of agreements within families and the process of getting comfortable with technology, an issue that tends to dominate these conversations. We also discussed the importance of promoting other kinds of healthy activities instead of hyperconnectivity. We agree that it isn’t a question of taking away a mobile phone or forbidding young people from going online. You have to give them alternatives.”
“Schools insist on the importance of setting priorities, and these vary by family,” Maldonado explains. “Some families need their child to use screens because part of their education takes place online. That is not the case for others. Reaching healthy agreements that satisfy all of the parties requires allowing the child or adolescent to be assertive. It also requires that parents and caregivers be informed.”
For Carrillo, “Mente en línea” is “a timid effort that the people of Paraguay have supported more than we anticipated.” TEDIC offers resources that it believes can be transferred to other contexts in order to promote use of technology that can help preserve mental health around the world.
This piece features information provided by TEDIC for the Seeding Change column. This column presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through APC's core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.
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