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University of Sunderland

The impact of technology on psychology

Posted on: September 17, 2021
Illustration of a man having therapy via video call

As the world of technology rapidly evolves and becomes a greater part of many aspects of our lives, it is no surprise that technology is now reaching and growing in popularity in the field of psychology. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, countries all over the world saw a greater demand for mental health services as bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear impacted many people.

As a result of this, the use of technology in psychology and psychotherapy grew exponentially. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), three quarters of clinicians were only providing teletherapy – therapy over the phone or video conferencing – and 16 percent were offering a combination of remote and in-person sessions. 

But teletherapy is only one way in which technology has penetrated the psychology sector, and there are many ways in which various forms of existing and new technologies are changing the way mental health issues are being treated.

Internet-based therapy

As the APA survey showed, many therapists began using teletherapy to continue seeing patients throughout the pandemic. Many therapists surveyed by APA claimed they would continue to offer teletherapy after the pandemic. While some were concerned about its effectiveness before the switch to online, peer reviewed studies have shown that teletherapy can be just as effective as in-person sessions at treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

Taking teletherapy a step further, there has been a rise in the development and use of internet-based psychotherapy and counselling companies like Betterhelp and Talkspace which operate exclusively online. The counselling services they provide are all carried out through web-based interaction, and offer text communication in addition to telephone and video calling.

While administering therapy through text may provide some downsides as clinicians aren’t able to read body language or other non-verbal cues, this informal approach opens access to many people as the costs incurred tend to be lower than traditional therapy, it is more convenient as many of us always have our smartphones nearby and the need to travel to an appointment is eliminated, and the chat room is open 24/7 so patients can get things off their chest in real-time without having to wait for their next session. In a world where technology has decreased wait times for almost everything, this approach makes online therapy a viable option for the digital age.

Virtual reality (VR)

VR headsets are typically used for video games and education, and simulate an experience which immerses the user into the virtual world by generating realistic images, sounds and sensations.

Oxford VR is one UK-based company which is using VR in psychology. They build treatments for mental illness using this immersive technology, putting patients into environments they find difficult in a controlled way so that they can practice more helpful ways of thinking and behaving. By using VR in this way, patients undergo exposure therapy without actually being put into the situation they find challenging. Oxford VR uses a tailored cognitive behavioural therapy approach, and clinical trials have proven it to be highly effective as the mind and body behave as if it were real and the lessons learnt in VR are applied to real life.

In 2018, Oxford VR undertook a controlled trial to see if VR could reduce the participants’ fear of heights. 100 people took part who had suffered from a fear of heights for an average of 30 years. People spent an average of two hours in VR over five sessions, and the result was an average reduction of fear by 68 percent. Half of the participants experienced a reduction of over 75 percent.

The gameChange project also seeks to use VR to help people living with psychosis to partake in day-to-day tasks without the anxiety it can provoke. If successful, people suffering from serious mental health issues may have a treatment option that has the potential to be transformative.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

AI is booming business at the moment, and is growing in popularity across many sectors. With the introduction of smart speakers, many now have AI in their own homes. As interest in AI grows, it is no surprise that it is also being utilised in the field of clinical psychology. 

While it is still early days and AI in psychology is still experimental, it is likely that it will play a big role in the future. 

Jonathan Gratch’s lab at the University of Southern California has built interactive virtual humans which have been used to help people learn negotiation tactics, to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors, and to help people disclose symptoms that could lead to the diagnosis of a stigmatized mental illness. 

Building on a social psychology theory, Gratch’s team trained a machine learning algorithm to mimic the verbal and non-verbal habits of non-judgmental listeners. Using a camera and microphone, this social agent also tracked relevant social information from their human partner’s voice, facial expressions, posture, and gestures in real time. A recent study found that people disclosed twice as much information to the virtual listener than on an official online disclosure form when responding to questions about PTSD.

By using AI instead of a human therapist, costs will be lower and convenience will be higher for users seeking treatments. However, as AI is run by a computer, true empathy and compassion will not be on the other end. This is one drawback which is likely to be investigated as AI continues to evolve.

Learn more about psychology and technology

At the University of Sunderland, we have an entirely online master’s degree in psychology. In our specialist module ‘Digital psychology’, you will develop an understanding of cyberpsychology and the psychology of how the online world has impacted human behaviour whilst also learning more about how AI influences our lives.

Our MSc Psychology is studied part-time and is open to people with or without a bachelor’s degree in psychology. With six starts a year you can begin within weeks, and you’ll learn alongside peers from all over the world which will give you an opportunity to grow your global network.

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