The Connection Between Mental Health and Smartphone Use

The question of whether or not smartphone use affects mental health is multi-layered and complex.

Smartphones themselves can affect an individual’s mental health (both negatively and positively) regardless of whether or not that individual has a smartphone addiction.

As digital technology becomes increasingly entwined in the adolescent experience it’s easy to understand why parents have their reservations about it, but severe mobile phone use or addictions are less common than you may think.

It’s entirely natural for parents to read headlines about how detrimental smartphones and excessive Internet consumption can be for children and start to feel anxious or panicked about technology. However, despite the fact that teenagers represent a generation of moderate-to-extreme Internet users, not every teenager is addicted to their smartphone.  

It’s important that we remember that fact before sliding down the slippery slope of how smartphones affect young people because it’s all too easy for the important distinction between “smartphone addictions are hurting our kids” and “smartphones are hurting our kids” to become blurred.

Smartphone Addiction: The Facts

That being said, there is considerable evidence to suggest that smartphone addictions are a 21st Century reality and that technology can impact adolescent children’s mental health when used excessively.

Dr Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, warns parents that there’s significantly more danger in cell phone addiction than just the potential for wasted time. In fact, teenagers with acute smartphone addiction can have a chemical imbalance in their brains (1) that can predispose them to psychological problems. Other alarming side effects of smartphone addiction can include:

  • Insomnia

  • Impulsivity

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

There is also current and compelling evidence demonstrating a link between excessive Internet consumption and decreased psychological well-being in teenagers. Studies have demonstrated that teenagers who spend large amounts of time on their smartphones are more likely to experience low levels of happiness.

However, it’s not a case of stating that smartphones are generally bad for teenagers to use. Instead, it’s a case of recognising which sorts of healthy, real-world activities fall by the wayside when a teenager is spending too much time on their digital devices; and what the consequences of that can be.

Researchers from the University of Georgia and the San Diego State University gathered and analysed data from a survey of more than 1 million teenagers across America. The participants were asked questions about how much time they spend on their smartphones, how often they socialise with others, and how happy they are. The results revealed that:

“On average (teenagers) who spent more time in front of screen devices, for example texting friends, playing computer games, or using social media, reported being less happy than those who spent more time partaking in non-screen activities such as sports, reading newspapers and magazines, and face-to-face social interaction (2).”

The key message here is that unhealthy and excessive smartphone usage is affecting teenagers’ mental health. So rather than sneaking into your teen’s room late at night and throwing their beloved iPhone out the window, we recommend taking some time to understand how to recognise and respond to smartphone addiction.

Is Your Teen Addicted To Their Smartphone?

While your teen may seem preoccupied with their phone or gaming console, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an addiction to their mobile device. Certain fascinations or compulsions can be normal in moderation but can become dangerous when they turn into outright obsessions. Obsessive behaviours are not only a sign of addiction but can also have catastrophic consequences if they’re not addressed:

  • 66% of teenagers believe their smartphone negatively affects their sleep (3)

  • 44% of teenagers will text while crossing the road (1)

  • 32% of teenagers admit to texting while driving (3)

  • 11 teenagers die every single day because they were texting while driving (3)

It can be hard to quantify addiction. Most parents will attempt to do so by simply measuring how often their child looks at their mobile device. While, in certain contexts (such as measuring sedentariness, level of physical activity, and exposure to blue light) it’s necessary to include non-leisure (e.g. school work) screen-time in a tally of “total hours of technology consumed”. However, it’s arguably unfair to include unavoidable screen activities in an addiction diagnosis. Furthermore, “hours consumed” is a problematic way of quantifying a behavioural addiction, as it’s the severity of the compulsion that truly characterises an addiction.

Smartphone Addiction Treatment For Teens

It can be helpful to look at technology use as a diet; there are good and bad ways to consume it, and the key is to achieve a balance. If your teen occasionally indulges, that’s completely normal and healthy. If they over-indulge, that can negatively affect their health. The keyword here is ‘indulgence’ because not everything that teenagers use technology for is recreational or for enjoyment; they often need to use a computer or tablet for school work.

If your teen’s relationship with their smartphone is not balanced enough and it’s interfering with their sleep, social life, or physical activity – it can be a sign of trouble. If you’re worried that your teenager might be developing or experiencing a smartphone addiction, we recommend that you take the followings steps:

1. Commit to a device-free hour each day (perhaps over dinner) and encourage the whole family to participate

2. Come up with a list of fun real-world activities to do together and encourage your teen to get outdoors and see friends

3. Take all Internet-capable devices out of your teen’s room and place them in public areas in the home

4. Either make your teen surrender custody of their smartphone at night, or disable WiFi and data after they’ve gone to bed

5. Ration the time that your teen can be active on certain apps per day

6. Never use your mobile device while driving (51% of parents admit to doing so while their child is in the car) and encourage your teenager to put their phone in the glove compartment when they’re driving: nothing is so important that it can’t wait until they get to where they are going.

If you are concerned that your teen is suffering from severe smartphone addiction, you may also want to consider seeking professional advice.

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