They connect us to more information than we could consume in a thousand lifetimes, make it possible to navigate the globe without a map, and carry all of our money without rattling coins. In many ways, cell phones make our lives faster, easier, and more efficient. But with such widespread use, that pushes aside more traditional ways of moving through the world come complications and problems. In this case, cracked screens and forgotten passcodes are the least of our worries. New studies are beginning to raise the troubling question: can cell phones cause depression?
Can cell phones cause depression? The research
While there is no clear research concluding that cell phones cause depression, there is definitely an indication that they can make depression worse.
A study out of Michigan State University found that many who reach for the connection they imagine will happen via a cell phone actually end up more depressed than those with plenty of real-life interactions. For those who used their cell phones just to pass the time, mood disorders did not seem to be a problem. But looking for human connection, the other main use of a cell phone? Turns out, that handheld device is not enough to foster genuine, meaningful human connection that prevents depression.
Michigan State University’s Prabu David noted that for all of the advantages of cell phones in terms of technology, they cannot replace simple human interaction:
“The research bears out that despite all the advances we’ve made, there is still a place for meaningful, face-to-face interaction. The mobile phone can do a range of things that simulate human interaction. It seduces us into believing it’s real, but the fact remains it’s still synthetic.”
For young adults, this type of cell phone use can be even more problematic, causing sleep disturbances, stress, and symptoms of depression for both men and women. A study by BMC Public Health looked at cell phone use among 20 to 24-year-old men and women and found that, at both the beginning of the study and at a one-year follow-up, men and women were affected negatively by overuse. Cell phone users of both genders who reported the most stress indicated that they felt that high accessibility afforded by cell phones may be the cause.
These results no longer even depend on human reporting.
A Northwestern University study found that your phone could indicate your risk for depression. Data gleaned from sensors installed in smartphones has indicated that the more time you spend on your phone, the more likely you are to be depressed. Smartphone sensors found that depressed people spent an average of 68 minutes a day on their smartphone, while non-depressed people spent an average of just 17 minutes. This data could reliably predict depressed people 87% of the time, more than the standard depression questionnaire.
Senior author David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, noted that smartphones are so smart that they can collect this data even without user reporting:
“The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions. We now have an objective measure of behavior related to depression. And we’re detecting it passively. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user.”
While the answer to the question, “Can cell phones cause depression?” may be “no” in terms of actually causing depression, it seems clear that they may perpetuate a depressive state by separating the user from the very world that they are trying to connect to. Preventing this disconnect requires a couple different changes in behavior.
Use your cell phone differently
Instead of using your phone to surf the internet and troll Facebook and other social media sites, use it to set up face-to-face meetings with your family and friends. Although many tout the internet as one big connection to humanity, oftentimes we feel even more isolated and separated after an hour of aimless clicking. Stop interacting at people online and start interacting with them in real life.
Keep track of time
While you may not be part of the Northwestern University study, tracking your cell phone usage is as simple as installing an app that lets you know how much time you really spend on your smartphone. Researchers at Northwestern found that it didn’t even matter where you went on your smartphone, just that you were on it.
If you find yourself clocking in at 60 minutes or more a day, even for work, it may be time to take a break.
Just because you can get a smartphone doesn’t mean you should. Consider using a phone that just offers text and call features to eliminate the temptation altogether.
This may seem like a revolutionary idea: one day a week, unplug yourself from your cell phone. Turn off your notifications and use it only as a phone. You may be amazed at how much you have come to rely on your phone for simple, everyday things.
Use this time to look around and see how your kids are doing, too. Your teens will follow the behavior you model. If you want them to engage with the world around them, look up from the screen.
Turn off at night
Even if you cannot manage to put your phone down during the day, at the very least, turn it off at least two hours before bed. The glow of screens changes the brain’s natural sleep patterns, causing insomnia and poor quality (and quantity) of sleep. As sleep disturbances are linked to depression and other mood disorders, this one simple step may change how you feel.
Take a minute to think about how you use your smartphone, then tell us: can your cell phone cause depression?