- Is your phone making you feel anxious or depressed?
- What the research says
- How to take a break and feel better
- Use your phone for good
- Find a doctor
- Screen time and social media may not be as bad for mental health as people think
- Know thyself – easier said than done
- From believer to skeptic
- Getting at the truth
Is your phone making you feel anxious or depressed?
- A study from the University of Arizona showed teens who were addicted to their smartphones also showed signs of depression.
- Some research has shown that teen phone use negatively affects sleep, which leads to depression and anxiety.
- The National Sleep Foundation recommends avoiding screen time at least 30 minutes before bed.
These days, smartphones are ubiquitous. They seem to be in the hand of every individual, young and old — that subtle blue glow is always reflecting off their eyes as they scroll, text and swipe.
This technology, which sometimes seems magic, has completely changed our lives. It's easier than ever to find information, purchase items and communicate with people around the world.
Lately, though, it feels our phones have been even more front-and-center in our lives. Whether it's another virtual video happy hour, telehealth visits with our doctor or ordering groceries, technology has been a big part of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Sure, this technology has been incredibly helpful over the last few months. But are there adverse effects, too? Read on to learn more about the side effects of too much phone use and how you can take steps to find digital balance in your life.
What the research says
While more research is needed to examine the effects of smartphones on adults, there have been several studies looking at the relationship between devices and young people. However, most studies haven't been able to show a direct connection between digital devices and mental health.
Recent research from the University of Arizona showed that adolescents who were dependent on or addicted to their smartphone were more ly to show signs of depression and loneliness. Researchers are still determining why that relationship exists.
A 2018 survey sponsored by Hopelab and Well Being Trust showed that teens and young adults (14- to 22-years-old) had mixed feelings about social media use. Respondents who had symptoms of moderate to severe depression said they were more ly to feel left out when they use social media, or think that others are doing better than they are.
“The increase in screen time during the pandemic, while pretty much mandatory, may be causing stress in adolescents and teens,” says Robin Henderson, PsyD chief executive, Behavioral Health for Providence Oregon. “But working to find healthy boundaries with technology is a step in the right direction for developing good mental health at a young age.”
Phones and sleep habits
While scientific studies haven't found many direct relationships between digital devices and depression, research has shown that they can hurt mental health because of how they impact sleep. A 2017 study from the Journal of Child Development found that smartphones can cause sleep problems in teens, which led to depression, anxiety and acting out.
Phones cause sleep problems because of the blue light they create. This blue light can suppress melatonin, a hormone that helps control your natural sleep cycle.
Whether you're a teen or an adult, your body and brain need a good night's sleep. Aside from the mental health benefits of a good night's sleep, getting solid shuteye may also help your heart.
To help avoid technology disrupting your sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommends you stop using phones, computers or televisions at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If possible, the Foundation also recommends eliminating electronics from your bedroom.
How to take a break and feel better
Anyone who has spent time on social media knows that it can come with a mixed bag of emotions. For every funny meme, there's a hurtful comment, and for every uplifting post, there's a photo of someone portraying a perfect life.
Combine that social media stress with non-stop video conferences and the constant feed of today's headlines and, before you know it, you're spiraling into a bad place.
“It’s pretty impossible to completely abandon phones, social media and screens,” Dr. Henderson says. “But setting aside technology-free time is something more people of all ages are having to actively pursue to improve their mental health and decrease stress.”
If you're starting to feel this «always-on» connectivity is putting a strain on your mental health, here are some ways you can take control and feel better.
Filter who you follow (with a trend toward the positive ones)
With today's unsettling and stressful headlines, the last thing your brain needs is more negativity. Try to be more aware of the people and organizations you follow on social media. Find accounts that focus on posting positive content.
Also, consider whether the people you follow are sharing snippets from their real life, or just filtering the good content. It's hard to remember that for every pristine post-workout shot, there are hundreds of bad angles and bad hair days. If it makes you feel better, avoid following people who filter too much of their «normal» life and only share the glamour shots.
Limit your phone time
Aim to reduce the amount of total time you spend on your phone. Set a goal of only 30 minutes or an hour a day and see if you can work your way down from there. If this isn’t realistic because you use it for work, try shifting as much as you can to your laptop or desktop.
If you're having trouble regulating yourself, there are plenty of tools available today that can set time limits on apps or block certain apps altogether. Some of these tools may already exist on your phone. Check out these timers available for Android and iPhone devices.
Acknowledge when it's time to take a break
Try to recognize when your mental health may be suffering after spending too much time on your phone. Do you notice your self-esteem drops after using a particular social media channel? Are you finding that you feel sad or angry after spending time on your phone? If the answer is yes, it's time to take a break.
Identify times during the day when it is okay and not okay to use your phone. Setting these boundaries can help you make sure you're taking time to disconnect. For example:
- If you have a separate phone or email for work, set a time at the end of your day to shut them off. Not only will this help limit your screen time, it will also help you avoid burnout while working from home.
- Don't look at your phone during any meal. Take time to enjoy your food mindfully or have a conversation with someone.
- Stop using your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If possible, leave it in another room while you sleep.
- Don't look at your phone first thing in the morning. Instead, find a few minutes for yourself and start your day fresh — drink a cup of tea, brew some coffee, do some stretches, exercise or meditate.
Use your phone for good
For all the negative talk about phones and technology, these devices come with plenty of positives, too. That same survey from Hopelab and Well Being Trust showed that teens and young adults often turn to the internet for help when they’re feeling depressed. The survey sampled more than 1300 U.S. teens and young adults.
According to the survey results:
- 90% of respondents turned to the internet for help with depression, including researching mental health issues.
- 75% of respondents looked for other individual’s mental health stories through podcasts, blogs or videos.
- 38% of respondents used wellbeing mobile apps.
- 32% of respondents connected with health providers through text and video chat.
Consider some of these ways your phone can help with your mental health:
Connect with supportive groups
In a recent Talk2BeWell podcast, Dr. Henderson sat down with a group of teens who shared their tips and advice for staying mentally healthy in this digital age.
During the podcast, the teens emphasized that they've found a lot of positive aspects to social media and digital tools.
In particular, these channels have helped the teens find online groups (such as LGBTQ communities) that provide support when they're struggling with mental health challenges.
«What we have seen is that the digital world is a space where young people can go for support,» Dr. Henderson says. Adults can benefit from this too.
The next time you pop on your favorite social media channel, search for some groups that match your interests and passions. Look for pages or communities that fit in with your hobbies (such as music, sports or cooking) or find a group of professional peers.
Use apps that help with relaxation
If you're starting to feel stressed or anxious, pulling up or Instagram may not be the best solution. Instead, the teens on the Talk2BeWell podcast recommend using:
- Meditation apps Headspace.
- Relaxing games, such as a virtual paint-by-number.
- videos about your favorite hobbies.
Providence in Oregon is looking to leverage technology for delivering mental healthcare through SilverCloud.
Remember that your phone doesn't have to be the enemy. If you're smart about how and when you spend time on your phone, you may find it can help you stay more connected and grounded.
Find a doctor
If you're still struggling with your mental health even after making these changes to your digital life, consider talking to a professional. They will be able to help you find healthy ways to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory or search for one in your area.
Could your phone be causing anxiety or depression? Learn about the possible side effects of too much screen time and how to find digital balance in your life. #mentalhealth
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Screen time and social media may not be as bad for mental health as people think
Even a casual follower of the news over the last few years is ly to have encountered stories about research showing that digital technologies social media and smartphones are harming young people's mental health.
Rates of depression and suicide among young people have risen steadily since the mid-2000s, around the time that the first smartphones and social media platforms were being released.
These technologies have become ubiquitous, and young people's distress has continued to increase since then.
Many articles in the popular and academic press assert that digital technology is to blame.
Some experts, including those recently featured in stories by major news outlets, state that excessive use of digital technology is clearly linked to psychological distress in young people.
To deny this connection, according to a prominent proponent of the link, is akin to denying the link between human activity and climate change.
In an effort to protect young people from the harms of digital tech, some politicians have introduced legislation that would, among other things, automatically limit users' time spent on a social media platform to 30 minutes a day.
If the evidence is so definitive that digital technology is harming America's youth in such substantial ways, then reducing young people's use of these devices could be one of the most important public health interventions in American history.
There's just one problem: The evidence for a link between time spent using technology and mental health is fatally flawed.
Know thyself – easier said than done
Absent from the discussion about the putative harms of digital tech is the fact that practically all academic studies in this area have used highly flawed self-report measures.
These measures typically ask people to give their best guesses about how often they used digital technologies over the past week or month or even year. The problem is that people are terrible at estimating their digital technology use, and there's evidence that people who are psychologically distressed are even worse at it.
This is understandable because it's very hard to pay attention to and accurately recall something that you do frequently and habitually.
Researchers have recently begun to expose the discrepancy between self-reported and actual technology use, including for , smartphones and the internet. My colleagues and I carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of discrepancies between actual and self-reported digital media use and found that self-reported use is rarely an accurate reflection of actual use.
This has enormous implications. Although measurement isn't a sexy topic, it forms the foundation of scientific research. Simply put, to make conclusions – and subsequent recommendations – about something you're studying, you must ensure you're measuring the thing you're intending to measure.
If your measures are defective, then your data is untrustworthy. And if the measures are more inaccurate for certain people – young people or those with depression – then the data is even more untrustworthy. This is the case for the majority of research into the effects of technology use over the past 15 years.
Imagine that everything known about the COVID-19 pandemic was people giving their best guesses about whether they have the virus, instead of highly reliable medical tests. Now imagine that people who actually have the virus are more ly to misdiagnose themselves.
The consequences of relying on this unreliable measure would be far-reaching. The health effects of the virus, how it's spreading, how to combat it – practically every bit of information gathered about the virus would be tainted.
And the resources expended this flawed information would be largely wasted.
The uncomfortable truth is that shoddy measurement, as well as other methodological issues including inconsistent ways of conceiving of different types of digital tech use and research design that falls short of establishing a causal connection, is widespread. This means that the putative link between digital technology and psychological distress remains inconclusive.
Social media has a lot to answer for, but in terms of time spent on them, the mental health of young people might not belong on the list. images.theconversation.com
In my own research as a doctoral student in social work, I found that the link between digital technology use and mental health was stronger when self-report measures were used than when objective measures were used.
An example of an objective measure is Apple's «Screen Time» application, which automatically tracks device use. And when I used these objective measures to track digital technology use among young adults over time, I found that increased use was not associated with increased depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.
In fact, those who used their smartphones more frequently reported lower levels of depression and anxiety.
From believer to skeptic
That the link between digital tech use and psychological distress is inconclusive would have come as a big surprise to me five years ago.
I was shocked by the levels of depression and thoughts of suicide among the students I treated when I worked as a mental health therapist at a college counseling center.
I, most people, accepted the conventional narrative that all these smartphones and social media were harming young people.
Wanting to investigate this further, I left clinical practice for a Ph.D. program so I could research why these technologies were harmful and what could be done to prevent these harms.
As I dove into the scientific literature and conducted studies of my own, I came to realize that the link between digital technology and well-being was much more convoluted than the typical narrative portrayed by popular media.
The scientific literature was a mess of contradiction: Some studies found harmful effects, others found beneficial effects and still others found no effects. The reasons for this inconsistency are many, but flawed measurement is at the top of the list.
This is unfortunate, not just because it represents a huge waste of time and resources, or because the narrative that these technologies are harmful to young people has been widely popularized and it's hard to get the cat back in the bag, but also because it forces me to agree with Mark Zuckerberg.
Getting at the truth
Now, this doesn't mean that any amount or kind of digital technology use is fine. It's fairly clear that certain aspects, such as cyber-victimization and exposure to harmful online content, can be damaging to young people. But simply taking tech away from them may not fix the problem, and some researchers suggest it may actually do more harm than good.
Whether, how and for whom digital tech use is harmful is ly much more complicated than the picture often presented in popular media. However, the reality is ly to remain unclear until more reliable evidence comes in.
Craig J.R. Sewall is a Postdoctoral Scholar of Child and Adolescent Mental Health at the University of Pittsburgh.
This article first appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.