Are smart phones destroying our mental health?

Research indicates that the use of smartphones has contributed to the epidemic of poor mental health among young adults
Georgina Jedikovska
A group of teens standing and looking at their smartphones.
Are smartphones destroying teen mental health?

Kar-Tr 

  • Research indicates that the emergence of smartphones coincided with a significant downturn in mental health.
  • Almost 50 percent of young adults aged between 18 and 24 struggle with psychological issues.
  • More than 84 percent of school parents now support banning phones in school

No one can argue that smartphones haven't profoundly revolutionized the society we live in. The number of people owning smartphones is estimated to be anywhere between 5 billion and 6.92 billion people, with numbers forecast to reach 7.7 billion by 2028.

But despite having, in some ways, simplified the way individuals communicate and access to information, the usage of social media and the abrupt shift to smartphones in the early 2010s also appears to have played a major role in creating what has been called an epidemic of mental illness.

Are smart phones destroying our mental health?
Young adults' mental health can be significantly affected by smartphone use..

Excessive time spent on smartphones, computers, and television has been demonstrated to lead to stress and anxiety, as well as causing sleep disturbance and depression.

According to a study by scientists at the University of Waterloo, Canada, digital dependency can also drive people who are intuitive thinkers into turning to their phone's search engine rather than their own intellect when making decisions. The researchers write, "Specifically, that people typically forego effortful analytic thinking in lieu of fast and easy intuition suggests that individuals may allow their Smartphones to do their thinking for them."

"They may look up information that they actually know or could easily learn, but are unwilling to make the effort to actually think about it," claimed Gordon Pennycook, co-lead author of the study, and a Ph.D. candidate in the university's Department of Psychology.

The results suggested that smartphones could even be making us dumber. "Our research provides support for an association between heavy smartphone use and lowered intelligence," said Pennycook.

Kostadin Kushev, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Georgetown University, has conducted research which suggests that the side-effects of compulsive use of smart devices can also lead to people smiling less. This, in turn, could significantly affect their ability to establish deeper connections with others.

Smartphones and mental health

Adolescents and young adults appear especially prone to the negative effects of excessive smartphone use. But to what extent is their psychological health in danger?

In a critical review published on the After Babel substack, Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., a social psychologist from the New York University Stern School of Business, and Zachary Rausch, a researcher at the Center for Humane Technology, suggest that smartphones not only undermine attention and learning, but also have a huge impact on young people's sense of belonging. They point to research demonstrating that adolescents who overuse smartphones and social-media may harm their ability to focus and apply themselves.

Their argument is supported by a recent global survey titled the Global Mind Project, conducted by non-profit Sapien Labs, which found that smartphones do have a large negative effect on mental health and relationships, especially among young adults.

The survey found that nearly 50 percent of young adults surveyed struggle with the ability to read cues such as facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and touch, leading to difficulty in assessing intent and building trust.

Interesting Engineering (IE) made contact with Tara Thiagarajan, Ph.D., the study's corresponding author, Chief Scientist and founder of Sapien Labs. She emphasised the way that smartphones severely distort young people's social behaviour.

“Our recent report on smartphones shows that the younger the age one got their first smartphone, the more likely they are to struggle with their mental wellbeing as adults", the neuroscientist told IE.

"Smartphones both displace in-person social interaction, as well as deliver a distorted perspective of the social world", the researcher continued. "It is something we must learn and practice to become good at."

"The smartphone, by consuming five to eight hours of each waking day displaces this practice, likely resulting in a deep deficit of in-person interaction during development.”

She explained that the heavy usage of smartphones has also taken its toll on how people connect with their own families. A 2021 study by communications company Vivo and Cybermedia Research (CMR), showed that 74 percent of parents in the study confessed that excessive use of their smart devices is hurting their relationship with their own children.

"More than three times as many young adults aged 18 to 24 want nothing to do with their adult families [compared to] their grandparents' generation", said Thiagarajan. "The smartphone has diminished the time families spend genuinely interacting with one another in person."

Are smart phones destroying our mental health?
Older adults are twice as likely to be close to their family members, compared to younger adults.

However, smartphones don't just pull young people away from friends and families, but can also push them down the road of depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

Statistical studies show that adolescent suicide trends began rising steeply almost in lockstep with the introduction of smartphones. The number of school-aged youth in the US who considered committing suicide increased by 25 percent between 2009 and 2017, while depression rates among teenagers almost doubled between 2009 and 2019.

Preventing the damage

The negative effects of smartphone use and social media has not escaped widespread notice. The number of parents who have united over banning phones in school has soared in recent years. Findings by this year's annual Back to School survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) showed that 84 percent of school parents in Ireland support a ban on mobile phones in all schools throughout the day.

And the movement to ban smartphones is not only limited to Ireland. UNESCO, the United Nation's Education, Science and Culture agency, estimates one in four countries has already banned smartphones in schools, either through law or guidance. The organization recommends, in its 2023 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, that only high-tech that supports learning is justified in schools .

Titled “Technology in education: A tool on whose terms?” the document suggested that mobile devices can not only cause distraction, but also risk student privacy and lead to cyber bullying.

"We need to learn about our past mistakes when using technology in education so that we do not repeat them in the future," said Manos Antoninis, GEM director since 2017. "We need to teach children to live both with and without technology; to take what they need from the abundance of information, but to ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant human interactions in teaching and learning."

Sapien Labs' chief scientist also supports this initiative. "Some specific actions that can make a difference are banning smartphones in schools so that less time is spent on these devices", concluded Thiagarajan.

There is hope, however, and some of it comes from the people most affected. For example, a recent teen-led movement has begun among New York teens to give up their smartphones and social media and engage more with each other and the "real world" instead. The teens replace their smartphones with older flip phones and spend time in discussions and in other 'offline' pursuits instead.

This article was written and edited by a human, with the assistance of Generative AI tools. Find out more about our policy on AI-powered writing here.

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