Do smartphones affect our mental health?

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It’s been just over 10 years since the first iPhone was unveiled, and now 90% of Irish adults have access to a smartphone. Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, the surges in popularity and use of smartphones have made them into a topic of key interest for psychologists. Because of this, there has been a lot of research into how smartphones could impact our mental health.

Although different polls will sometimes give different results, Ireland frequently ranks as the most smartphone-addicted country in Europe, and even the western world as a whole. By 2016, 76% of Irish people were using the internet every day, and 35% of people said that their smartphone is their primary device, and they would use it over alternatives such as a laptop or tablet.

Our levels of smartphone use should be a big red flag to us all, as there is no shortage of peer-reviewed, in-depth scientific studies that show a clear correlation between smartphone use and mental health issues. Overuse of a smartphone can lead to problems in anyone, but by far the most at-risk group, and therefore the most well-studied, are teens.

A study published in 2017 looked at the number of teens in the US who were suffering from symptoms of depression between 2010 & 2015, the years that smartphones really exploded in popularity. At the same time, the number of teens exhibiting symptoms of depression went up 33%, attempted teen suicides rose 23%, and teen suicide went up 31%.

Not only is there a clear link between smartphone ownership and risks to mental health, but also between time spent on a smartphone and level of unhappiness. A study published earlier this year in the psychological journal Emotion found that children between the eighth and tenth grade (roughly 12-16) were less happy the more they used a smartphone. Just 13% of those who spent less than 2 hours a day were unhappy, while this rose to 18% for those who spent up to 19 hours a week on them, and 24% for 40 hours or more.

There are a lot of competing explanations as to why smartphone use could be negatively impacting our mental health. Social media contributes to many of these, giving rise to issues like FOMO (fear of missing out), cyberbullying, body image and self-worth issues, anxiety over adding friends and getting likes. All of these issues can affect people at any age, but young people are the most at-risk, not only because they are the first generation to grow up with this technology already in place, but also because there is more peer pressure, and their minds are still forming.

A study carried out in Korea University used Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy to analyse the brains of smartphone addicted and non-addicted teens. MRS is similar to MRI, but examines molecules to analyse chemical metabolism. What they found was that the smartphone addicted teens had major imbalances with certain neurotransmitters that are responsible for cognition and the regulation of mood. This goes to show that smartphone use can actually alter our mind and mood on a chemical level.

While we still have more to learn on just how much of an impact smartphones can have on our mental health, it’s clear to see that they do have an effect. It may take a few more years to discover exactly how they affect us, and what we can do about it, but for now, the best way to protect yourself is to limit your smartphone use.

Julie Farrar