5 Ways Your Phone Could Be Damaging Your Mental Health

Smartphones have become essential to almost every part of a person’s life these days: school, work, family, friends, fun. Originally, phones were functional – a means to make calls on-the-go and connect with others. They have evolved to become hand-sized computers which are capable of much more. Your smartphone can tell you the closest place to get a burrito and the fastest route there. You can find out the latest White House tweet, watch your favorite rom-com movie, or post this week’s blog.

With the growing availability and affordability of a variety of smartphones and omnipresent wi-fi, people have access to the entirety of the internet around the clock. All anybody ever has to do is take out their phone. While this technological advancement is amazing and convenient, it comes at a cost.

Research is beginning to show that cell phone addiction is a real thing and that your phone may be damaging your mental health in many ways.

Chasing Dopamine

Addiction and craving — for your phone or anything — depend on a complex interplay of brain chemicals, but the neurotransmitter dopamine is at the heart of it. Dopamine is a feel-good neurochemical messenger that carries signals across brain synapses, responsible for motivation and reward-seeking behavior, and essential to neuroplastic change.  Neuroplastic change is what allows a habit or addiction to form in the first place.

Every time your phone dings, and you check it to see a text, a like, or a message, your brain rewards you with a shot of dopamine. Over time, the dopamine gets released earlier and earlier until just seeing your phone or hearing it ding causes an anticipatory dopamine surge. The dopamine preceding the action motivates you to perform the behavior creating the urge to act.

You start to develop the need to check and use your phone more and more to achieve the same brain response. This dopamine reward-seeking behavior could cause you to lose interest in other activities. Before you know it, you are spending excessive amounts of time on the phone.

The article, Why you’re addicted to your phone….and what to do about it, tells us:

Apple says that iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times a day. Even worse, research firm Dscout found that we tap, type and swipe our smartphones more than 2,600 times a day, on average. The majority of us check in front of our kids, during meetings, while we eat and while we should be sleeping.”

All that time spent staring at your phone could be damaging your mental health. Here’s how:

Anxiety 

Research is showing that your mobile phone can cause anxiety. Some people experience intense anxiety when separated from their phones. Some even exhibit withdrawal-like symptoms if they can’t check it. I’ll bet you probably know someone like this or maybe it’s you. One study determined that:

Overuse of wireless mobile devices (WMDs) may be associated with a form of psychological dependency, of which a prominent feature may be anxiety arising from separation from these devices. College students, who are among the most avid consumers of WMDs, might be susceptible to the negative effects of WMD overuse. “

 Sleep Disturbances

Disrupted sleep is one common result of frequent smartphone use – especially later in the day. Looking at your phone at night is terrible for your brain. Smartphone screens emit bright blue light. At night, your brain gets confused by that light, because it mimics the brightness of the sun. This causes your brain to stop producing melatonin, a hormone that gives your body the “time to sleep” signal. Smartphone light can disrupt your sleep cycle, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.

Relationship Stress

We may think that our phones are bringing us closer to our dear ones, but they can actually have the opposite effect. Checking your phone when you are eating dinner with your family or on a date with your partner, takes your attention away from being present with them. When you are overly attached to your phone, your relationships and friendships can suffer. A cell phone habit can cause conflict, negativity and social isolation leading to mental stress. Excessive smartphone usage can put your personal and professional relationships at risk.

Depression

The science is overwhelming linking smartphone use to rising depression and suicide rates, especially among teens.  One study, found that teenagers who are glued to their smartphones are significantly less happy. Researchers determined that teenagers who excessively used on-screen devices exhibited lower levels of happiness than teenagers who spent more time engaging in non-screen activities.

However, having no interaction with digital screen devices didn’t lead to happiness either. The happiest teenagers found a sweet spot of using digital media for about an hour per day.

Reduced Productivity and Attention

Another downside of smartphones is that they can negatively affect your productivity and attention span at work or school. Experiments found that people performed more poorly on tasks requiring focus when they received a text notification or a phone call during the task –even if they didn’t interact with their phone. Researchers determined:

When the notifications broke their concentration, the subjects had more incorrect answers and were more likely to make rapid guesses. Subjects who received notification of a call — even if they didn’t pick it up — were three times likelier to make mistakes.”

Other research has even found that medium to heavy multiple and simultaneous media users have less grey matter in an area of the brain responsible for attention control. These users also had higher anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impulsivity.

 Conclusion

You know that you might have a problem with your smartphone when you find it difficult to be separated from it for any period of time and are more eager to engage with your phone than real life. Your smartphone use could be negatively affecting your mental health. However, there are some other points important to keep in mind.

Most research found the effects of greater smartphone use weak to moderate. Heavy use doesn’t guarantee mental health problems. Also, most studies regarding this issue are correlational. It’s not clear if smartphone use causes mental health symptoms or if symptoms prompt greater smartphone use. Perhaps depressed persons are more likely to use their smartphone to seek social interactions. Similarly, an anxious person might check their social media feeds more often.

If you want to curb your phone usage just to be safe, you can find science-backed tips here.

Contributing Author

Being a regular practitioner and adviser on everything related to nutrition, fitness, health, and wellness, Vineetha Reddy contributes her knowledge to various sites like HealthCentral.com, StyleCraze.com, and ElephantJournal.com.  She strongly believes that the ingredients you find in your pantry provide the best benefits for your good health. Follow her for great ideas and solutions on Twitter and Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. The questions at the end of the article are interesting. Do higher levels of smartphone use exacerbate depression and anxiety? Or are these causing higher levels of smartphone use? Many articles like to demonize our devices but phones may help to answer deeper questions about mental health issues. And there are a growing number of apps for smartphones specifically designed to help those with depression and anxiety.

    • I think the answer to the questions is probably a little both ways. And like you point out, it does have some beneficial uses too. I know some people who really like those apps.

  2. These studies are provocative, but since they show correlation not cause, we really have to look within ourselves to determine how smartphones use affects us personally. I didn’t get a smartphone for a very long time because honestly I didn’t want to be glued to it and increase my screen time. Now that I have one, my use is still limited. Every time it dings, it’s more likely to shock me than make me feel good. But lately I have gotten into the habit of checking it late at night before bed and I don’t think this is a good thing. Like all things, moderation is probably key.

    • I totally agree, Sandra. Moderation is key to most everything. I am not glued to mine either and find myself apologizing for not seeing texts in a timely manner. However, I do find it’s a reassuring way to keep in touch with my sons. For instance, he can let me know when he arrives on the other end of the drive back to school. As a single female, I also just feel more secure with it.

  3. I think I must be the exception that proves the rule…I’ve had a smart phone for years and am just as likely to leave it at home as not when I go out. I ignore it if I’m doing something else. Never answer it during a meal. I work on the assumption if someone really wants to talk to me, they’ll leave a message and I’ll get back to them.

    There are exceptions…close family. They have a special ringtone so I know it’s them and I’m more likely to pick up sooner.

    With all that said…I do think that screens of any kind are especially problematic for young kids and their growing brains. I

    As Sandra said. Moderation is probably key.

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