Smartphone use and mental health


I just finished reading an interesting article over on The Conversation on smartphone use and mental health.

I recommend giving it a read, but I’ll summarise some of the basic ideas here as well as what I think is an important takeaway concept when it comes to your own smartphone use.

Research on mobile phone use and mental health regularly generates results suggesting a negative relationship, that is, increased mobile phone use leading to poorer mental health. At least, that would be the impression you might take away from research presented in the general media (where bad news gets more clicks).

This has led to a fairly pervasive idea that the more you use your mobile phone, the greater risk you are at for poorer mental health (e.g. increased anxiety, depression, stress) and a kind of pervasive level of anxiety about the potential negative impacts of the device we all carry around with us and spend significant time using.

The authors of the Conversation article however are cautious about this interpretation.

They surmise that a lot of research done in this space has been of poor quality and has failed to consider ‘how’ people use their mobile phones, versus simply how long they use them.

Their own studies suggest that there isn’t a link between time spent on a mobile phone and mental health, once you take into consideration other factors.

What other factors?

The big one they point to is how concerned a person is about their technology use. To get a feel for this factor, simply ask yourself whether you feel concerned about the amount of time you spend using your mobile device or the way you use it.

Those who are more concerned about their use of their mobile phone (i.e. report higher perceived ‘problematic use’) are more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, depression or stress.

So are there implications for how to use your smartphone?

I’m reminded of research I encountered back in my Health Psychology days which found that a simple question like “in general, would you say that your health is excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor?” turned out to be a pretty good way of assessing an individual’s overall health and also their future health.

In this case, you need to ask yourself whether you think your own mobile phone use is problematic. If the answer is yes, then maybe looking to change the way you interact with your phone is warranted.

But don’t be so concerned about how much time you spend on your phone. Instead, look at what activities you are doing on your phone.

There is a difference between mindlessly scrolling social media versus using messenger or Discord to have enjoyable chats with friends.

There is a difference between reading books in the Kindle app versus scrolling news sites getting wrapped up in negative new reports.

Back in 2017 I reviewed some research that looked into which of the main social media apps (e.g. YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) young people rated as a positive influence in their lives or a negative influence. It was found the YouTube was rated the highest in terms of its net positive impact, perhaps reflecting the tendency for YouTube to be used either as access to entertainment or access to learning. Other apps (e.g. Instagram) which tended to encourage comparison with others had a negative overall impact.

One way to think about it is to try and use your mobile phone to make yourself:

  • smarter and more knowledgeable (e.g. read books, listen to podcasts)
  • more skilful (e.g. meditation training)
  • more likely to engage in other healthy behaviours (e.g. track fitness goals)
  • more connected to your friends, family and colleagues (e.g. use messaging apps)
  • more in control of the everyday parts of your life (e.g. manage your finances)

In these cases you are using your mobile device to fulfil health- and mental-health-promoting goals that would exist, even if you didn’t have a mobile.

Worry less about the time you are spending on your mobile device, and focus more on using it in ways that enhance your everyday life.

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