Can Technology Actually Help Us Get Healthy? Three Scientists Weigh In

According to a recent study, adults living in the United States check their phones 80 times a day. (That’s up from 46 times per day in a similar study done back in 2015.) We are a generation that lives and breathes technology—from the phones in our pockets to the device you’re reading this on to your TV screens, video games and even cars.

And while everything has the potential for both harm and good, according to a few scientists, technology can be used in many ways to help us change our behavior and reach our goals.

Reminders and “nudges”

One of the major obstacles that prevents us from changing our behavior, says Katherine Milkman, Ph.D., professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, is a failure to remember our best intentions. Thankfully, technology has great solutions for this.

“For instance, we can create calendar reminders and send text alerts to combat forgetting. There are also dozens of other ‘nudges’ that technology can help deliver with the capability to change behavior at scale, including the digital conveyance of educational information (for example, why it’s worth changing our behavior in the first place),” Milkman says.

Social support

Lyle Ungar, Ph.D., professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, says that his favorite use of technology is for connecting people with similar interests or end goals. “Find new friends (not just romantic partners); find people to meet up with, to share a hobby with, to walk with. Technology can help you spend time with people who do what you want to do, which will help you change your behavior,” Ungar says.

Milkman agrees that the social aspect of technology is particularly helpful with behavior change—specifically in regards to accountability. “Technology can also facilitate social support, which can be critical to behavior change,” Milkman says. “For instance, if we let members of our online social networks know about commitments we’ve made to change our behavior, friends and family can help hold us accountable for our commitments and make it easier for us to achieve our goals by offering much-needed encouragement.”

Default settings

“Technology has tremendous potential to shape interactions and interventions given its power to inform, connect, simplify and motivate,” says Roy Rosin, MBA, chief innovation officer at Penn Medicine. “When technology removes work you used to have to do, such as TurboTax doing the calculations and guiding you through your taxes or Shazam making it easy to identify a song you’re enjoying on the radio, that reduction in friction changes behavior. You’re more likely to do your own taxes or buy that song. When an app presents you with preset defaults—whether it’s Facebook’s settings or maps suggesting a route—you’re more likely to see and act on the information presented. Change the defaults, and knowing most people take the path of least resistance by accepting default settings, you can change behavior.”

However, Rosin cautions, technology is neither all good nor all bad when it comes to behavior changes and whether they make us healthier. A good example: Alexa. We can ask the in-home assistant to change the temperature in our house without even getting up to walk to the thermostat, which may not seem like a catastrophic change, but in the end, these small things add up. (Think: the plot of the 2008 Disney Pixar film “WALL-E.”)

Hopefully, with technology continuing to change and evolve at such a rapid pace, designers and developers will use new technologies to help people make changes for the better.

“When technology helps you eat healthier food, be more physically active, avoid illness, access information you need to succeed academically or professionally, or spend more quality time with family or friends, that’s all in my category of behavior change for good!” Rosin says.

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Photo credit: Igor Miske, Unsplash