Your smartphone may be making you depressed

I remember catching this story ages ago: A study found that the more time you spend on your iPhone, the more likely you are to be depressed.

Then, yesterday, a friend was kind enough to send me this article about how the University of Berkeley was offering students “counseling” in response to a conservative speaker coming onto campus.  I totally agreed with the article’s premise: That it is absurd to offer counseling for an optional speaker who some students may disagree with, and that such an offer does real harm to the mental health world be further stigmatizing and cheapening the need to get help.  However, there was a passage in the article which really caught my eye:

Researchers have, however, identified reasons to be concerned about the psychological health of teenagers and young adults. In her new book, “iGen,” social psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we may be on the brink of a major mental-health crisis among the generation born between 1995 and 2012, a crisis she links to smartphones and social media.

This made me wonder: Just how true is this statement?  As always, standard disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, just an observer with a real interest in mental health.  That being said, it certainly appears that the answer may be yes.

First, there’s this powerful Atlantic piece, written by Jean Twenge, which makes the case that iPhones are, without a doubt, leading to a “mental health crisis.”  It also argues that smartphones are causing problems at rates previously unheard of in past generational changes:

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

The articles conclusions are stark and tie directly to smartphones.  It makes the case that teens are going out less, spending less time with friends, showing less independence, dating less, having less sex and driving less than cohorts from previous generations.

So what are they doing with all that time? They are on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.

The case here is clear: Screen time makes teens less happy, and more likely to screen for depression.  Seriously, there’s a ton in this article, so if this is an area of interest to you, I highly suggest you read it.  It made me want to set my phone on fire.

Anyway….

Other articles have confirmed the link between smartphones, depression and anxiety.  What is most interesting to me is the nature of this relationship.  Anyone who has ever taken Psych 101 knows that correlation does not equal causation, meaning that just because two things are connected does not mean that one (smartphone use) causes the other (depression or anxiety).  That may be the case, but it may be that depression and/or anxiety actually cause an uptick in smartphone use; personally, I can vouch for this – when I get anxious, I frequently turn to my phone as a crutch or escape from reality.  It also may be a third item, like lack of self-confidence, simultaneously causes both depression and an uptick in smartphone use.

That being said, the Atlantic article I discussed above makes the case that the relationship is linked, and that smartphone use is causing depression.  That conclusion, however, is not uniform, per this meta-analysis:

…the studies examined were correlational, meaning that it is not clear if smartphone use causes symptoms of mental illnesses or if symptoms of mental illness cause greater smartphone use.

As I said above, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but I do know that smartphones can have a deleterious effect on mental health and social development.  I suspect this is an area that will be the subject of increasing research as time goes on, and I certainly hope that is the case.

Now, go outside!

4 thoughts on “Your smartphone may be making you depressed

  1. Hi Mike,

    My name is Chris and I am exploring the topic of social media’s effects on communication and overall mental health. I recently started a website to motivate me in my exploration. I read your article and would like to invite you to have a conversation with me on my upcoming podcast. I think you may have a great perspective on the subject! If you have any interest in discussing your thoughts/opinions, shoot me an email and we can further discuss.

    Like

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