Growing research seems to have reached a conclusion on the issues of whether smartphone addiction causes depression or if depression results in smartphone dependency. Like the chicken and egg conundrum, it has been unclear whether smartphone addiction caused depression or depression leads to a dependency on smartphones. However, several studies now seem to indicate the connection of anxiety and depression to smartphone addiction.
A 346-person study at the University of Arizona found that participants with a smartphone dependency showed much higher incidence of depression then people whose lives weren’t controlled by their phones. Researchers found that people who became too reliant on their phones often experienced higher levels of anxiety both when using their phones as well as when they didn’t have access to the device. It is important to note that this study focused on smartphone dependency, and not just general use. It was also centered on older adolescents, a group who typically grew up using smartphones.
Mental health professionals warn that being bombarded with a constant stream of unpleasant information can compromise people’s emotional health and result in increased feelings of stress and anxiety. During already tense times, such as the 2020 worldwide pandemic and national election, smartphones can exacerbate the problem. Professor Yamalis Díaz, PhD, at NYU Grossman School of Medicine reports seeing a record number of visits this year for mental health issues.
Díaz said that phones can be a conduit for stress when the brain becomes conditioned to look for threats and reacts by sending signals to the body. Referred to as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, when the brain senses a threat it prepares itself to either fight the threat or run from it. During this biological process the brain releases stress hormones, like cortisol, to prepare the body for action. However, if these hormones are not burned off by physical activity, they build up and keep the body in flight or fight mode.
Constantly checking their phones can keep people in constant flight-or-fight mode and produce deleterious consequences of stress, anxiety and depression. Diaz also says that developers knew precisely what they were doing when they created “likes” and other notifications. These are designed to trigger the pleasure centers in the brain, releasing the “feel-good” transmitter dopamine, resulting in a mild euphoric feeling that can lead to addiction. This results in the brain being in a constant state of arousal either by pleasure-center or flight-or-fight activity.
Another recent study at San Francisco State University discovered that people who used their smartphones the most were at the highest risk of anxiety disorders. This is believed to be due to the constant notifications interrupting their normal routine and activated the same neural pathways involved in the flight-or-fight response.
Clinical psychologist Maria Mouratidis at Notre Dame of Maryland University agrees that a never-ending stream of information can lead to increased anxiety. Mouratidis states that anxiety can be reinforced when people continually check their phone to stay constantly informed.
Technology can be viewed as both the cause and solution to the world’s problems. As such, it must be used in a way that promotes the latter while not allowing it to become the former. Years ago, before the advent of smartphones, typically only people that lived through some type of traumatic event had constant levels of elevated anxiety. However, with all the news, videos and social media apps, more people are exposed to these types of experiences. As a result, anxiety and depression are becoming much more commonplace.
Diaz says that people’s obsession with smartphones can be an escape to avoid dealing with their thoughts and feelings and ultimately damage relationships. In the end this makes them feel even more isolated and alone. Avoiding feelings and relationships can result in mental health issues and addiction. While people don’t need to give up their smartphone, they need to set and follow limits so it doesn’t take over their daily life.
As the old adage goes, the mind is a marvellous servant, but a terrible master. Signs of smartphone addiction can include people being on their phone at times when they should be trying to unwind, such as taking a walk or a coffee break at work. Like the frog in the pot of boiling water, technology can have such an insidiously creeping effect that people often don’t even realize that the addiction is occurring. Social media can add to feelings of anxiety as it is the perfect prescription for people comparing their lives to others. This often leads to feelings of inadequacy that in turn can lead to anxiety and depression.
While technology makes people’s lives more entertaining, being constantly plugged in creates a void in relationships and an insufficiency in coping abilities. However, there are some ways that smartphones can actually help in this regard. Video-chat apps allow people to connect face-to-face with family and friends whether they be across town or on the other side of the world. There are also apps for video-chat therapy that research has shown to help with anxiety and depression.
To break the smartphone-addiction habit, and get away from the stress-causing information, people should adopt daily practices that involve getting away from their phones. Users should turn off the notification features on their phone so they are not constantly bombarded with information. People should limit exposure to social media and news and turn off or put their phone in “do not disturb” mode 30 minutes before bed. If they have a concern before bed or in the middle of the night, people should write it down and deal with to the next day, not at 2am. Other ways people can begin to deprogram themselves is by turning their phones off during breaks at work, dinner or when talking with friends so they aren’t constantly being distracted.
Overall, smartphones have been a boon to society by allowing people to have all the information they want in the palm of their hand. However, people must always bear in mind that the other side of the sword is razor sharp and too much of a good thing will almost always result in negative consequences.