Is Your Phone Causing Anxiety and Depression? Probably Not

Image credit: Redd Angelo

Smartphones have been the cause of so many worried articles – do they make us anti-social? Are we all addicted? Have we become less intelligent because of them?

While researchers go back and forth studying all those topics, one team has been investigating a more interesting question: do our smartphones contribute to anxiety or depression? A University of Illinois study turned to students to discover how cellphone use links up with mental health issues.

Lleras and Panova surveyed over 300 university students with questionnaires that addressed the students’ mental health, amount of cellphone and Internet use, and motivations for turning to their electronic devices. Questions included: “Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cellphone use?” and “Do you think that life without the Internet is boring, empty and sad?“

Interestingly, the team found no link between the amount of cellphone use and depression or anxiety. Students who used their phones a lot were often doing so out of boredom and suffered no ill effects as a result.

On the other hand, people who described their own cellphone behavior as addictive were much more likely to score high on anxiety and depression scales. The correlation suggests that those of us with anxiety or depression might feel less in control of our phone usage, and more prone to compulsive behavior with technology. Whether that’s true or not may be entirely in the eye of the beholder.

The team did find at least one mental health benefit to the technology:

In a follow-up study, Lleras tested the role of having, but not using, a cellphone during a stressful situation. Individuals who were allowed to keep their cellphones during an experimental, stressful situation were less likely to be negatively affected by stress compared with those without their phones.

“Having access to a phone seemed to allow that group to resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation,” Lleras said. This benefit was both small and short-lived, but suggests the phone might serve as a comfort item in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.

We can’t say conclusively that our phones have no impact on our mental health but this study, at least, suggests that the phones themselves are not the problem. A healthy relationship with technology may be far more important.

[Avoidance or boredom: Negative mental health outcomes associated with use of Information and Communication Technologies depend on users’ motivations]
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