In a bid to rest the debate on what comes first, smartphone addiction or depression, a new study has found that young people who are hooked on to their smartphones may be at an increased risk of depression and loneliness. 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 participants, ages 18-20, researcher Matthew Lapierre and his collaborators from University of Arizona 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, assistant professor in the department of communication. "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 rather than on general smartphone use, which can actually provide benefits. Understanding the direction of the relationship between smartphone dependency and poor psychological outcomes is critical for knowing how best to address the problem, said Pengfei Zhao who co-authored the study. "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." The study focused on older adolescents, a population researchers say is important because they largely grew up with smartphones and 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 noted. 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, the researchers suggested.