Frequently readers of this blog will note that I have repeatedly discussed the extremely damaging effects that technology, social media and overuse on your smartphone can have on your mental health. Last week, in a blog entry entitled “Put Down The Damn Phone,” I suggested that you…well, put down the damn phone. That entry was largely inspired by Catherine Price’s book How To Break Up With Your Phone, a devastating look at the problems our over reliance on technology have wrought, and a step by step path forward.
I reached out to Catherine to answer a few questions, and she was kind enough to provide her insight into technology, phone use, and mental health. Enjoy! And yeah, buy her book. REALLY, buy her book.
You discuss the addiction to telephones and how it negatively affects…well, pretty much everything. Can you talk specifically about the connection between depression and phone use?
I can’t speak to that precisely because I am not an expert in depression and don’t get much into depression in particular in the book. With that said, you might want to look at the work of Jean Twenge and, in particular, her book iGen, because she did a lot of research on the mental health effects of lots of phone time. Her article in the Atlantic, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” also shows charts of depression rates rising (I am not sure if they are self-reported) starting around the same time as the launch of the first iPhone. My suspicion would be that social media would be the biggest problem when it comes to phone use and depression, and that there are probably three groups (at least) of people being affected: those who are already depressed and then become more so upon getting sucked into social media spirals, those who numb themselves/try to escape their emotions by zoning out on their phone (and are unable to motivate to stop) and those who are borderline depressed and become more so upon spending tons of time on their phones/looking at instagram and social media feeds of other people’s idealized (and unrealistic) representations of their lives. Again, I am not a medical expert, so please clarify that this is purely my personal hypothesis.
What’s the direction of the relationship between depression and phone use? Which one causes which, or is it more complicated than that?
As mentioned above, I can’t really comment on that because I am not an expert in depression. With that said, I would suspect that—as is true in many circumstances—the relationship goes both ways. Sometimes the phone might trigger depression; other times, depression might trigger the excessive phone use.
One of the most frightening components of your book was discussing how phones can affect developing minds. Can you expand upon that a little bit?
Our brains are “plastic”—meaning malleable—by nature; it’s how we learn things. We are spending an average of four hours a day on our screens. Put those facts together and you can see why our current habits are worrisome for everyone, adults and children alike. With that said, children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable because their brains are still in the process of developing for first time—and the brain regions associated with self control and judgment are not yet well developed. Also, if you spend your childhood experiencing life on a screen, you are missing out on, well, life. I don’t think we know yet the long term effects that phone time is having/will have on our children, but I highly recommend to new parents that they limit screen time as much as possible. Drawing something on an iPad is not the same as drawing something on pen and paper. Taking care of a virtual pet is not the same as a real dog. Etc. Our goal should be to help our children experience the world through all 5 of their senses.
Phone addiction seems to be real – but, how often is real therapy required to break it?
I’m not a mental health expert so I don’t know. I can say, though, that many therapists report seeing clients with addictions—or, at very least, problematic relationships with their devices. I recommend Victoria Dunckley’s book Reset Your Child’s Brain and Nicholas Kardaras’s Glow Kids for more information from psychiatrists’ point of view on device addiction and kids in particular. There’s also the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. My non-professional take is that there are some cases in which you may well need the help of an addiction expert, especially if you’re already also suffering from another condition, such as depression. But for most of us, we have the ability to create healthier relationships on our own—it requires being more aware of your own experiences, prioritizing your time, and making concrete changes to your phone and environment to cultivate new, healthier habits. It’s hard, but it’s possible.
What’s your best advice for people who are depressed but spend too much time on their phones?
If you are truly depressed and spending too much time on your phone, my advice—again, not as a medical expert—would first be to seek therapy for the depression. It’s very hard to make changes when you’re depressed. With that said, one relatively simple thing to do would be to try to notice how you feel when you use your phone (or any other activity that you are concerned/curious about). Does it alleviate your depression? Does it make you feel slightly better while you’re on it but worse after? Don’t judge yourself for these answers; you’re just trying to get in touch with how what you do makes you feel. If you begin to notice that your phone consistently worsens your symptoms, then you can use that insight as a motivation to use your phone less. But don’t forget: the point isn’t to arbitrarily restrict your phone time; it’s to get back in touch with your priorities in life. So if you are able, try to think about some of the things/activities that bring you joy. Then create an actual mission statement for yourself—something like, “I want to spend less time on Instagram so that I can spend more time on my garden.” And make a change to your physical environment to make that easier—leave your gardening shoes and sun hat by the door, for example. Any time you try to change a habit you need to be sure to identify a new habit that you want to cultivate—otherwise you’re restricting yourself with no purpose. Again, your ability to make these changes might depend on your level of depression, which is why it is important, in serious cases, to enlist the help of a professional.