fb-pixelThink your phone can only be a source of anxiety? Digital therapy should make you think again. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Ideas | Aimee Ortiz

Think your phone can only be a source of anxiety? Digital therapy should make you think again.


Between the 24-hour news cycle, keeping up with friends, family, and loved ones, and making sure you’re not falling behind at work — you could say we’re all just a little stressed.

In fact, a 2018 American Psychiatric Association poll found that almost 40 percent of Americans feel more anxious this year than they did last.

And while that handheld computer in your pocket, with its constant reminders, sometimes appears to be a trigger of the problem — or even the source — it’s also a tool that can be used to manage your moods, happiness, and yes, your anxiety.

In her new book, “Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus,” author Margaret E. Morris details the innovative ways in which people are using apps and smart tech to ease their lives. After all, isn’t that the original aim of advancing technology?


In the book, Morris — a clinical psychologist, researcher, app creator, and University of Washington affiliate faculty member — looks at how people are using a variety of smart technologies and online communities to help others and themselves. She looks at interventions such as the Crisis Text Line, whose volunteers provide counseling via text messaging to people in their moments of need.

But digital therapy is just part of it; other chapters of Morris’s book discuss how dating, text-message norms, grief, and the sharing economy are evolving on mobile devices. And she explores how users are adapting new smart technologies to fit their needs.

Clinical psychologist, researcher, app creator, and affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington Margaret E. MorrisCourtesy of Margaret E. Morris

Ideas spoke to Morris by phone from her home in Seattle. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What sparked your idea for this book? Why write it now?

There’s a lot that people can do to help themselves, just by using their current tools differently.

We’ve seen it across a lot of studies, people using different prototypes that we’d made. [We’ve also watched] people use existing products that they adapted to their own lives.


For example, I heard of a woman who had gone through a really brutal romantic rejection using Tinder as a kind of emotional recovery tool — something she could use from time to time, to lift her mood.

You write that, after the 19th century, talk therapy didn’t scale — that is, it couldn’t expand to serve everyone who needed it. How can technology make things better?

There are many, many people who need help, who don’t have access. Most of these tools are something that could be considered additives to psychotherapy or things for people who wouldn’t necessarily go to psychotherapy.

These tools can augment personal dialogue and, in many cases, work as an adjunct to therapy.

Do you think the rise in mood apps and the growth of “digital therapy” have helped de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health and wellness?

I certainly don’t have any data on that, but it seems plausible. It gives a certain freedom to talk about mental well-being and to inquire about other people.

There are a couple of other things that have made a big difference. They aren’t really therapy apps, but they’re things for people in crisis — the Crisis Text Line. It’s like, at the moment of dire need, there’s this option that’s probably less stigmatizing and has more privacy than a traditional 911 call.

Dialing a hotline is difficult for people who can be heard by the person that’s placing them at risk — whether that’s a parent in the next room or a domestic partner. Sometimes calling a hotline can be antithetical to getting help. Whereas, you can discretely text.


In the book, you write about how some people use social media like Facebook and other online communities to help with their moods and relationships.

Most of the mood apps now still have a happiness orientation or a very strong positive psychology orientation. And that’s a little different than the way some people want to track their moods, which is more to explore a range — exploring the depth of loss or learning to be okay with negative mood. Some people want tools for mental health that might not be quite so prescriptive or one-directional.

Everywhere you look online, people are talking about being overwhelmed or about needing a mental health break or help. Some call it “anxiety culture.” Is this an actual issue people need to be concerned with?

I don’t know. I haven’t done the population studies over time. But what I have seen is people using social media to ameliorate their own anxiety or to connect with people who can help them.

We hear a lot about negatively comparing ourselves to other people, but I think there are ways that people find role models and really, meaningfully, imitate those people to bring about positive changes in their lives.

I’m not saying that all social media use is positive, when clearly it’s not. But if we look to how people are using it in positive ways, we can try to find inspiration for how we want to use it.


You write about adapting the concept of “therapeutic alliance” — the collaborative bond between a patient and therapist. But can apps and smart tech really replace in-person therapy?

That interpersonal relationship is key to psychotherapy, and there is a responsiveness that a person and their therapist has, and the way that relationship evolves based on the patient challenging the therapist and vice versa. That’s very important and, if there is a strong trust coupled with skill, that can really help a person. So that’s a big demand to bring into an app. But I do think that people who are using technology — we can demand more of it so that our relationship with our devices becomes more mutually challenging.

We use our devices to look at ourselves more honestly and critically, and to push apps in different ways, to not just take them as they’re supposed to be used. Because the developer may or may not have what’s important to us in mind.

You’ve suggested there’s no “magic bullet,” so what is it in or about these apps or smart technologies that people should look for?

I spent a lot of time working on apps for emotional well-being, to help people make lifestyle changes to improve their health, but ultimately realized that, it’s how people use the technologies that are a part of their lives already — and how they really make those their own and then integrate those with their relationships and conversations — that makes a big difference.


So we don’t necessarily need to chase one app, or one product, but to be more resourceful and reflective about whatever we’re using.

One of the things that I really learned from some of the people that I interviewed was that it was almost like the technology was important, but what was more important was that they stayed focused on the other person that they were trying to change they’re conversations with, or the health issue.

So the technology is really just a means to these relationships or other objectives, and you can get lost in a shiny new device. That’s a clear red flag.

Aimee Ortiz can be reached at aimee.ortiz@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.