Smartphone dependency and depression in young adults

Smartphone overuse by young people is linked to an increased risk of later depression, finds a new University of Arizona study. While this has been established by numerous studies, the current research reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health on August 31, 2019, was aimed at finding out whether the smartphone usage was because of loneliness or whether it caused the loneliness in the first place.

The answer is that smartphone dependency predicts the later development of depression. This is the first study known to establish the direction of this association. The reasons are also suggested: reliance on smartphones for social support and intimacy reduces the extent of significant communication between people offline, leading to a greater sense of loneliness and depression. The study also shows that smartphone use by itself is not negatively linked to mental health.

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

The study

The study covered about 350 people aged 18-20 years, and looked at four aspects related to smartphone use: the actual use, dependency, occurrence of depressive symptoms and of loneliness. Dependency on a smartphone means that the person feels anxious without it, and relies on it for mental wellbeing. The reason for choosing this age group was twofold: this is a group of people who grew up when smartphones had already become common. 95% of people in this category already have smartphones. Secondly, this age group is especially prone to depression, among other mental health issues. The negative aspects of smartphone use are more likely to affect this group significantly as they are emotionally more fragile.

They asked the participants to rate several statements related to smartphone use on a scale of one to four. A sample statement might be “I panic when I cannot use my smartphone.” They estimated daily use of the device in minutes per eight common smartphone tasks, like texting, surfing, social media, gaming or looking at news apps. This was used to estimate the minutes/day usage.

They were also assessed for loneliness, depression and daily use of the device based on their answers to other questions, first at the beginning of the study and then after 3-4 months. The UCLA Loneliness Scale was used to assess loneliness, and for depression, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. Both use a four-point rating of specific statements.

Smartphone use vs dependency

Making use of smartphones to accomplish many tasks which might otherwise go undone or be less well done is a different matter, or to remain better connected with significant others in one’s life – this is associated with definite psychological benefits. However, this is not the phenomenon under the microscope in this study. The concern of the researchers is the overdependence on the many facets of technology the smartphone offers in terms of social connectedness, entertainment and virtual reality.

The study is based on earlier research which indicates that Internet dependency, more or less similar to smartphone dependency, is a predictor of depression and loneliness. However, the question here was on the directionality of the finding: which causes which, or do they both operate on each other? Knowing which way the relationship between depression or mental ill health and smartphone dependency is critical in devising the right corrective measures to fix the problem.

Researcher Pengfei Zhao says, “If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people's mental health. But if smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve wellbeing.”

The reasons for this positive association are multiple. Similar to the Internet dependency syndrome, negative aspects of smartphone dependency could be explained by “the displacement hypothesis” – time spent using the smartphone is taken away from time that could have been spent offline with family and friends, which is sometimes associated with greater intimacy and feelings of support compared to online interactions. Another is the vocational inadequacy or lack of skills and productivity caused by spending time on the device which should have spent on one’s vocation.

However, the small size, portability, universal connectivity and versatility due to app use make the smartphones even more dangerous than computers that access the Web, simply because they allow the users to take them (and use them) everywhere – to the point that they become “indispensable”, to quote the report.

Implications

Considering the outcome of this study, the researchers advise smartphone users to look at whether they are dependent on their devices and if so, to regulate their use. Finding other ways to cope with stress in their lives is helpful in this regard, since smartphone use to deal with stress is very common. The eventually negative outcome of this strategy should drive them to use other more positive means such as spending time in the company of good friends, having a workout, running, or taking a walk with someone comfortable.

The study also highlights just how novel the technology is, and how many unanswered areas there are in respect to the people-device relationship. Even as the current study definitely indicates that smartphone use does lead to a higher risk of depression and dependency, it throws up another question: why does this occur? Time for more study, say the researchers. Future research will probably directly monitor smartphone use rather than relying on self-estimates, and will require the development of more generalizable scales to diagnose dependency.

Journal reference:

Short-term longitudinal relationships between smartphone use/dependency and psychological well-being among late adolescents. Matthew A. Lapierre, Pengfei Zhao, & Benjamin E. Custer. Journal of Adolescent Health. August 31, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.06.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1054139X19303374

Dr. Liji Thomas

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Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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