Your Kids, Their Smartphones, Depression and Loneliness

New research suggests a person’s reliance on his or her smartphone predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms, as opposed to the other way around.

Most people with functioning brains realize that excessive smartphone use isn’t good for your mental health. It seems like inherent wisdom that this is especially true for kids. Now, research out of the University of Arizona tells us what most of us “know” is true: an increased risk of depression, isolation and loneliness exists for young people “addicted” to smartphone use.

Backing up the widely held belief that smartphone dependency is connected to depression and loneliness is a seemingly ever-growing body of research evidence. The question has always been “which came first?” Are depressed, lonely and isolated people simply more likely to be reliant on their devices or does the reliance on these smartphones cause depression and loneliness (or contribute significantly to them?)

Researcher Matthew Lapierre and his team at University of Arizona undertook a study of 346 adolescents, aged 18-20 to see if they could answer that exact question. Their finding? Smartphone dependency is the predictor for depressive symptoms and loneliness, not the other way around.

“The main takeaway is that smartphone dependency directly predicts later depressive symptoms,” said Lapierre, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “There’s an issue where people are entirely too reliant on the device, in terms of feeling anxious if they don’t have it accessible, and they’re using it to the detriment of their day-to-day life.”

The study will be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. In it, Lapierre and his co-authors zeroed in on actual smartphone dependency, not just general smartphone use, which is largely accepted as having some benefits to users. They wanted to dial down on psychological reliance on the devices and the need to use them – a form of addiction – in order to get a more exact relationship.

“The research grows out of my concern that there is too much of a focus on general use of smartphones,” Lapierre said. “Smartphones can be useful. They help us connect with others. We’ve really been trying to focus on this idea of dependency and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes.”

In order to effectively address the problem, it’s critical to understand the direction of the relationship between the dependency on smartphones and the negative psychological outcomes, according to Pengfei Zhao, co-author of the study, along with Lapierre and Benjamin Custer.

“If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people’s mental health,” Zhao said. “But if smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve well-being.”

Researchers used a statement response scale to measure the degree of dependency for each subject. They responded to statements like “I panic when I cannot use my smartphone.” Questions were also included to assess depressive symptoms, loneliness and participants’ daily smartphone usage. Questions were asked at the start of the study and again 3-4 months later.

Lapierre’s team chose older adolescents for several reasons. First, they are digital natives. They grew up with smartphones and other digital communication devices as a normal, integrated part of their daily life. Second, their age and the the transitional nature of their stage of life make them somewhat more vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes like depression.

“It might be easier for late adolescents to become dependent on smartphones, and smartphones may have a bigger negative influence on them because they are already very vulnerable to depression or loneliness,” Zhao said.

It might be time for all of us to reassess our relationships with our smartphones and other devices. There are considerable negative effects of smartphone dependency, so some self-imposed boundaries seem wise, according to researchers.

Alternative stress management techniques may be a helpful strategy. Previous research has shown that some folks actually turn to their smartphones to try to relieve stress, Zhao said. That sounds like a pretty terrible idea, if this research is correct.

“When people feel stressed, they should use other healthy approaches to cope, like talking to a close friend to get support or doing some exercises or meditation,” Zhao said.

Despite the reality that they are seemingly everywhere, impacting every aspect of our lives, smartphone technology is relatively new. Research is underway across the planet to find out their effect on our lives. Lapierre believes that now that researchers have identified a link between smartphone dependency and depression, loneliness and mental health issues, the next step is to understand why that relationship exists.

“The work we’re doing is answering some essential questions about the psychological effects of smartphone dependency,” he said. “Then we can start asking, ‘OK, why is this the case?'”

What can you do right now to mitigate the negative mental health aspects of smartphone dependency for yourself and your kids? Here’s an easy one: turn the suckers off for a while and go outside. Your mental health will thank you for it!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Matthew A. Lapierre, Pengfei Zhao, Benjamin E. Custer. Short-Term Longitudinal Relationships Between Smartphone Use/Dependency and Psychological Well-Being Among Late Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2019

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