Summary: A person’s dependency on their smartphone predicts greater loneliness and depressive symptoms, and not the other way around.
Source: University of Arizona
Young people who are hooked on their smartphones may be at an increased risk for depression and loneliness, according to a new study from the University of Arizona.
A growing body of research has identified a link between smartphone dependency and symptoms of depression and loneliness. However, it’s been unclear whether reliance on smartphones precedes those symptoms, or whether the reverse is true: that depressed or lonely people are more likely to become dependent on their phones.
In a study of 346 older adolescents, ages 18-20, researcher Matthew Lapierre and his collaborators found that smartphone dependency predicts higher reports of depressive symptoms and loneliness, rather than the other way around.
“The main takeaway is that smartphone dependency directly predicts later depressive symptoms,” said Lapierre, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “There’s an issue where people are entirely too reliant on the device, in terms of feeling anxious if they don’t have it accessible, and they’re using it to the detriment of their day-to-day life.”
In the study, which will be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Lapierre and his co-authors focus on smartphone dependency – a person’s psychological reliance on the device – rather than on general smartphone use, which can actually provide benefits.
“The research grows out of my concern that there is too much of a focus on general use of smartphones,” Lapierre said. “Smartphones can be useful. They help us connect with others. We’ve really been trying to focus on this idea of dependency and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes. ”
Understanding the direction of the relationship between smartphone dependency and poor psychological outcomes is critical for knowing how best to address the problem, said communication master’s student Pengfei Zhao, who co-authored the study with Lapierre and communication doctoral student Benjamin Custer.
“If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people’s mental health,” Zhao said. “But if smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve wellbeing.”
The researchers measured smartphone dependency by asking study participants to use a four-point scale to rate a series of statements, such as “I panic when I cannot use my smartphone.”
Participants also answered questions designed to measure loneliness, depressive symptoms and their daily smartphone use. They responded to the questions at the start of the study and again three to four months later.
The study focused on older adolescents, a population researchers say is important for a couple of reasons: First, they largely grew up with smartphones. Second, they are at an age and transitional stage in life where they are vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes, such as depression.
“It might be easier for late adolescents to become dependent on smartphones, and smartphones may have a bigger negative influence on them because they are already very vulnerable to depression or loneliness,” Zhao said.
Given the potential negative effects of smartphone dependency, it may be worth it for people to evaluate their relationship with their devices and self-impose boundaries if necessary, the researchers said.
Looking for alternative ways to manage stress might be one helpful strategy, since other research has indicated that some people turn to their phones in an effort to relieve stress, Zhao 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 said.
Smartphones are still a relatively new technology, and researchers across the globe continue to study how they’re affecting people’s lives. Lapierre said now that researchers know that there is a link between smartphone dependency and depression and loneliness, future work should focus on better understanding why that relationship exists.
Short-Term Longitudinal Relationships Between Smartphone Use/Dependency and Psychological Well-Being Among Late Adolescents
Purpose The aim of the study was to determine the short-term longitudinal pathways between smartphone use, smartphone dependency, depressive symptoms, and loneliness among late adolescents.
Methods A two-wave longitudinal survey was used using adolescents between the ages of 17 and 20 years. The interval between wave 1 and wave 2 was between 2.5 and 3 months. Using convenience sampling, the total number of participants who completed both waves of data collection was 346. Validated measures assessed smartphone dependency, smartphone use, depressive symptoms, and loneliness. The longitudinal model was tested using path modeling techniques.
Results Among the 346 participants (33.6% male, mean [standard deviation] age at wave 1, 19.11 [.75] years, 56.9% response rate), longitudinal path models revealed that wave 1 smartphone dependency predicted loneliness (β = .08, standard error [SE] = .05, p = .043) and depressive symptoms (β = .11, SE = .05, p = .010) at wave 2, loneliness at wave 1 predicted depressive symptoms at wave 2 (β = .21, SE = .05, p < .001), and smartphone use at wave 1 predicted smartphone dependency at wave 2 (β = .08, SE = .05, p = .011).
Conclusions Considering the rates of smartphone ownership/use among late adolescents (95%), the association between smartphone use and smartphone dependency, and the deleterious effects of loneliness and depression within this population, health practitioners should communicate with patients and parents about the links between smartphone engagement and psychological well-being.