Do smartphones cause mental illness?
via The Conversation

Do smartphones cause mental illness?

#SmartphonesHarm
#TechNotTheProblem
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The kids are not alright. According to new research highlighted by The Conversation, teens are more depressed, and both suicide and suicide attempt rates among U.S. teens are up double digits since 2010. Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge argues this disturbing trend is likely due to the smartphone. Smartphones are leaving people isolated and at risk of depression. However, Professor of Psychology Christopher J. Ferguson argues self-isolating behavior associated with smartphone overuse is a symptom of an underlying mental health issue that runs deeper than an "addiction" to technology. What do you think? 

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#SmartphonesHarm
#TechNotTheProblem

How concerned should people be about the psychological effects of screen time? Balancing technology use with other aspects of daily life seems reasonable, but there is a lot of conflicting advice about where that balance should be. Much of the discussion is framed around fighting “addiction” to technology. But to me, that resembles a moral panic, giving voice to scary claims based on weak data.

Anything fun results in an increased dopamine release in the “pleasure circuits” of the brain – whether it’s going for a swim, reading a good book, having a good conversation, eating or having sex. Technology use causes dopamine release similar to other normal, fun activities: about 50 to 100 percent above normal levels.

Cocaine, by contrast, increases dopamine 350 percent, and methamphetamine a whopping 1,200 percent. In addition, recent evidence has found significant differences in how dopamine receptors work among people whose computer use has caused problems in their daily lives, compared to substance abusers. But I believe people who claim brain responses to video games and drugs are similar are trying to liken the drip of a faucet to a waterfall.

Most of the discussion of technology addictions suggest that technology itself is mesmerizing, harming normal brains. But my research suggests that technology addictions generally are symptoms of other, underlying disorders like depression, anxiety and attention problems. People don’t think that depressed people who sleep all day have a “bed addiction.”

To be sure, there are real problems related to technology, such as privacy issues. And people should balance technology use with other aspects of their lives. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for the very small percentage of individuals who do overuse. There’s a tiny kernel of truth to our concerns about technology addictions, but the available evidence suggests that claims of a crisis, or comparisons to substance abuse, are entirely unwarranted.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

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