Smartphones and teenage depression

Reports linking teenage depression and smartphones overlook the positive benefits these devices also bring, says Dr Chris Fullwood, Reader in Cyberpsychology.

I don’t think it’s entirely surprising that some young people (and indeed people of all ages) develop strong psychological and emotional connections to their smartphones or that they may even experience anxiety when they are separated from them (or Nomophobia – no-‘mobile-phone phobia’ – as it has been labelled).

We have to consider that the smartphone is so much more than a simple communication device and that it has also evolved into an informational and recreational tool.

Smartphones serve a variety of functions, which are often very personal to the individual. They can act as repositories to store cherished memories, be used as personal assistants, they are gateways to information, they can be used to keep ourselves entertained and they may even express aspects of our personal identity through personalisation and customisation.

In a recent qualitative investigation published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Fullwood, Quinn, Kaye & Redding, 2017*) we noted how young people often have contrasting views about their smartphones, seeing them as simultaneously disposable objects but also describing them in very anthropomorphic terms (i.e. attaching human qualities and characteristics to them).

Although it might appear problematic to reconcile these opposing viewpoints, what this might suggest is that users are more attached to the different functions that smartphones serve than the physical device itself. In other words, although the smartphone can be replaced, the abstractive representations of the phone (e.g. as a memory repository) hold much more sentimental value for the individual.

When discussing the attitudes that young people have about their phones, we also have to remember that there are some unique considerations relating to specific stages of development. For example, adolescence is a crucial stage in human development and it is during the transition from childhood to adulthood that developing a clear sense of self and identity takes centre stage. Adolescents may be much more concerned with how they are perceived by others because they are still trying to discover themselves and positive friendships play an important role in the journey to adulthood.

Value

In this sense, it’s not entirely surprising that teenagers place so much value on devices which allow them to express their individuality and stay connected with their friends.

We also have to be careful about how we appraise much of the research which has come out recently linking smartphone ownership and use to a number of deleterious impacts. For example, Jean Twenge’s recent article in the Atlantic on ‘are smartphones destroying a generation?’ links increased smartphone use to higher instances of depression in Generation Z. The biggest problem with these data is that they assume a causal relationship between two variables which correlate significantly.

In other words, there is an assumption that using smartphones causes depression, but it is just as likely that young people who are feeling depressed turn to their smartphones because it helps to soothe or distract them or because they can use it to gain valuable social support. We also should remember that as a society we are becoming much more accepting and tolerant about mental health issues so perhaps people just feel more comfortable about coming forward to talk about them.

I think there is a bias in the media at the moment to represent the more negative aspects of technology, but this is not an uncommon story and we had the same types of reactions when the radio, television and videogames were introduced. It is important to acknowledge that these devices also have so many positive benefits, for example they can make our lives easier and more fun and help us to maintain important social bonds.

*Fullwood, C., Quinn, S., Kaye, L.K., & Redding, C. (2017). My Virtual friend: A qualitative analysis of the attitudes and experiences of Smartphone users: Implications for Smartphone attachment. Computers in Human Behavior, 75, 347-355. 

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