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What to Do When Your Phone Is Eroding Your Mental Health

A new study suggests there may be more than just a link between smartphone reliance and depression: The one may cause the other.

by Jesse Hicks
Oct 3 2019, 4:30pm

Photo by Rachel Brister via Stocksy

What’s the German word for the moment you realize you’ve been mindlessly scrolling through your phone while real life passes you by? Most of us know that feeling, and though research has been mixed about the effects of smartphone use on self-esteem and mental health, some studies have shown a correlation between smartphone use and loneliness and isolation, particularly among teenagers. Because it’s difficult to conduct a pure test of those two variables, it’s been hard to say which comes first: Are we lonely and depressed because we rely on our phones so much, or do we rely on our phones so much because we are depressed and anxious? And, if it's the former: What should those of us carrying our phones with us every waking hour of every day do about it?

Now, though, a new study published in August in Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that smartphone dependence is a good predictor of loneliness and depression. In a study of 346 18- to 20-year-olds, researchers found that relying on smartphones preceded symptoms of loneliness and depression, rather than the other way around. Though the study is limited in scope, it suggests there may be more than just a link between them: The one may cause the other.

The study doesn’t contend with the possibility that people who are prone to phone dependence may be prone to experience these other feelings, no matter what. But even if the phones are just a trigger for people at a generally greater risk for loneliness or depression, the findings are still valuable. Matthew Lapierre, a study co-author, clarified in a statement that the research focused o n people who felt dependent on their phones, not just people who generally used them. (Participants were asked to use a four-point scale in responding to questions such as, “I panic when I cannot use my smartphone.") "Smartphones can be useful. They help us connect with others,” Lapierre said. “We've really been trying to focus on this idea of dependency and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes."

It’s not just teenagers who can become smartphone-dependent and potentially experience the associated mental health risks. “Some researchers have described phones as adult pacifiers, because they act like pacifiers do for young kids: They soothe anxiety and other forms of psychological discomfort,” said Adam Alter, Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

"If smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve well-being," said Pengfei Zhao, another of the study's co-authors. So what are we supposed to do? How can we change our habits to wean ourselves from what’s hurting us?

“We know in addiction research that the more readily available a drug is, the worse the addiction will be,” said Dr. David Greenfield, the founder and medical director of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “We’re carrying our drug with us—our digital drug—everywhere we go.”

Greenfield said the problem is really the dopamine hit of the internet. “The internet is the world’s largest slot machine,” he said. “It’s not a logical thing. It bypasses the frontal lobes of the brain.” Even worse, the effect is fleeting: Keep chasing it, and you’ll be left with what Greenfield called the “mild-to-moderate malaise that we see record levels of right now.” (Notifications, incidentally, are particularly bad: They pull you in with the potential of something interesting, but still leave you dopamine-depleted. Turn off as many as you can.)

A good first step, Greenfield suggested, is recognizing that physically separating yourself from the phone can do a lot to re-balance your relationship with it; most of us can take a trip to the grocery store without a smartphone in hand, or sleep without our phones in the room.

When you do have your phone with you, keep it out of sight. Everyone who goes to the bar and puts their phone on the table is doing it wrong, Greenfield said: Seeing your phone makes you more likely to pick it up to see what’s happening elsewhere while missing what’s right in front of you. Greenfield said part of changing this is accepting—even welcoming—boredom. “We’ve become intolerant to boredom,” he said. “But it increases creativity and it increases the press for real social interaction.”

Both Android and iOS now include screen-time tools that can reveal just how much time you’re wasting without a clear goal in mind. Remove the apps you don’t truly need. “All of those apps exact a price, and the price is our attention,” Greenfield said

"When people feel stressed, they should use other healthy approaches to cope, like talking to a close friend to get support or doing some exercises or meditation," Zhao suggested in a statement.

But to truly get out of the loop—feeling lonely or anxious, then turning to apps that worsen the problem—requires straightforwardly reassessing why we use technology, Greenfield said. “You have to develop a mindful, more conscious use." He recommended establishing a critical distance and working backward: How do you want to spend your time? Eating, sleeping, exercise, and self-care are all crucial to mental health. How does your phone use help you accomplish those things and care for yourself? How does it detract from your well-being?

Greenfield sees people frittering away four to seven hours a day on their phones, in extreme cases. “At the end of your life,” Greenfield said, “Do you want to have spent 15–20 percent of your life staring at a smartphone?” Especially when, instead of spending that time meaningfully, you wasted it scrolling through social media—and felt worse doing it?

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