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Are mobile phones bad for your health?

A couple of years ago, an article in The Atlantic ran with the headline:“Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The article was a feature written by San Diego State University psychologist and academic Jean Twenge. The article reviewed data associating teen mental health with technology, and, for the most part, found that there was a strong correlation between young people who actively use technology and mental health issues.

READ MORE: Brief absence from social media leads to withdrawal symptoms

Study evidence mounting?

Another study, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that addiction to, and not simply use of, mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. This research was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (“Avoidance or boredom: Negative mental health outcomes associated with use of Information and Communication Technologies depend on users’ motivations”). Separately, Baylor University researchers found as cellphone functions increase, addictions to this piece of technology become an increasingly realistic possibility, and this is affecting school performance for a high proportion of students.

Background context – a rise in depression rates?

Background information, which gives such findings context, include a rise in the number of high schoolers considering suicide, which increased 25 percent between 2009 and 2017. Plus the number of teens diagnosed with clinical depression has risen 37 percent between 2005 and 2014.

READ MORE: Decreasing social media use reduces feelings of loneliness

Challenging the psychological consensus

But are these findings correct? Writing in Vox, Brian Resnick presents a different take on the evidence. He notes that most studies suggest correlation but not necessarily causation. This means that depression rates are indeed rising among young people, but just because mobile device use is rising, this does not necessarily mean that an increased use of mobile devices is the cause or the growing rates of depression.

In the article, Resnick interviews Professor Anthony Wagner, who is chair of the psychology department at Stanford University. Summarizing the range of studies published to date, Wagner assesses: “Is there anything that tells us there’s a causal link? That our media use behavior is actually altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes? The answer is we have no idea. There’s no data.”

Many studies on mobile device use and depression are not based on clinical studies but are rather based on questionnaires, competed by enlisted participants in a particular study. The questionnaires normally ask participants to select multiple choice answers, without the opportunity to give context. In other words, they are quantitative surveys rather than qualitative ones. Furthermore, the things that are being looked at on-line are often not assessed. These are factors that detract from the overall data assessment.

There are some studies that show heavy users of technology, especially young people, do have higher rates of depression (See: “Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study“). By heavy use this is seven hours per day or screen time and upwards. However, because technology is being used this still does not infer that the technology is cause, it may be that those who seek comfort from devices and on-line world to this extent already have underlying mental health issues which related to other factors in their lives.

Need for further research

As things stand, further examination is required and there is a need for more focused studies. There may be a link between mobile device use and mental health, but researchers need to get to grips with whether some people who are already showing signs of depression have a greater tendency to exhibit deeper levels of depression or whether it is certain on-line activities, such as certain social media activities, which are affecting mental health, or whether mental health is being affected at all.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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