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  • Writer's pictureLaura Sesana

Mobile Device Addiction Linked to Depression, Anxiety

Addiction (not just use of) smartphones and other mobile technology is liked to depression and anxiety in college-age students, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

"There's a long history of the public fearing new technologies as they are deployed in society," said University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, lead author of the study.

Lleras explains that this is the same fear of new technology that was manifested with the introduction of televisions (“TV is turning kids into zombies”), video games (“video games desensitize kids and turn them into killers”), and recently smartphones (“The internet and increased connectivity is isolating and depressing us”).

Study authors argue that even though past research has shown that high use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is associated with higher anxiety, depression and general psychological distress, there are very few studies on the subject.

Seeking to expand research on the link between ICT and mental health, Lleras and undergraduate honors student Tayana Panova surveyed 375 students using questionnaires focusing on the students’ mental health, amount of time spent on the Internet or using a cell phone, and their motivations for using electronic devices. After the questionnaires were screened, 57 students were dropped due to incomplete answers. Of the remaining 318, 157 were males and 161 were females.

With the goal of finding out whether (and how) self-destructive and addictive behaviors concerning phones and the Internet were related to mental health, the questionnaires included questions like "Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cell phone use?" and "Do you think that life without the Internet is boring, empty and sad?"

According to the results, motivation for going online or using a cell phone is an important factor in the relationship between technology usage and negative mental health outcomes.

"People who self-described as having really addictive style behaviors toward the Internet and cell phones scored much higher on depression and anxiety scales," Lleras said.

On the other hand, there was no relationship between negative mental health outcomes and students who used their cell phone or the Internet to escape boredom.

Lleras conducted a follow-up study to analyze the effect of having—but not using—a cell phone during stressful conditions. The experiment showed that when presented with a stressful situation, the stress was less likely to affect the subject negatively if s/he had their cell phone when compared to students who were not allowed to keep their mobile.

"Having access to a phone seemed to allow that group to resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation," said Lleras.

This suggests that a cell phone can be a comfort item in stressful situations, despite the benefit being small and short-lived.

Lleras is the first to admit that the characterization of a cell phone as a comfort item is not very convincing. However, he is much more secure in his assertion that there is a strong relationship between the motivation for Internet or cell phone use and mental health, which requires further study.

"We shouldn't be scared of people connecting online or talking on their phones," said Lleras. "The interaction with the device is not going to make you depressed if you are just using it when you are bored. This should go toward soothing some of that public anxiety over new technology."

Additionally, addressing addiction to technology may be a significant addition to treatment of depression, general anxiety disorder and other mental health issues.

Photo: Jorge Quinteros, Flickr Creative Commons

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