senior woman with mobile phone
Mental & Emotional Health

Mobile Device Addiction Linked to Depression & Anxiety

Is cellphone use detrimental to mental health? A 2016 study from the University of Illinois in Champaign finds that addiction to, and not simply use of, mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. Here at thifAge.com, we suspect that this addiction issue extends to older adults as well.The study was published in March 2016 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

A release from the university quotes U. of I. psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who conducted this study with undergraduate honors student Tayana Panova, as saying, “There’s a long history of the public fearing new technologies as they are deployed in society.” This fear of new technology happened with televisions, video games and most recently, smartphones, he notes.

Lleras and Panova surveyed over 300 university students with questionnaires that addressed the students’ mental health, amount of cellphone and Internet use, and motivations for turning to their electronic devices. Questions included: “Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cellphone use?” and “Do you think that life without the Internet is boring, empty and sad?”

The goal was to see if addictive and self-destructive behaviors with phones and the Internet related to mental health.

“People who self-described as having really addictive style behaviors toward the Internet and cellphones scored much higher on depression and anxiety scales,” Lleras said. However, the researchers found no relationship between cellphone or Internet use and negative mental health outcomes among participants who used these technologies to escape from boredom. Thus, the motivation for going online is an important factor in relating technology usage to depression and anxiety, Lleras said.

In a follow-up study, Lleras tested the role of having, but not using, a cellphone during a stressful situation. Individuals who were allowed to keep their cellphones during an experimental, stressful situation were less likely to be negatively affected by stress compared with those without their phones.

“Having access to a phone seemed to allow that group to resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation,” Lleras said. This benefit was both small and short-lived, but suggests the phone might serve as a comfort item in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.

While the role of phones as comfort items is somewhat tenuous, the relationship between motivation for cellphone or Internet use and mental health warrants further exploration, Lleras said. Breaking addictive technology habits may provide an important supplemental treatment for addressing mental health issues such as general anxiety disorder or depression, he said.

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