Do Smartphones Cause Depression and Anxiety?

Teenage girl on a smartphone. There has been much controversy about whether or not phones cause depression or other mental health disorders in teens. (Source: Reshot.com)

Most teenagers with a phone have probably heard some variant of the statement “cellphones cause depression.” It can be easy to say this: according to National Public Radio (NPR), there has been a sudden increase since 2012 of teens showing symptoms for depression— such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts. This is around the same time cellphones and social media started to get really popular. But cellphones aren’t the only cause of this increase in mental health problems for teenagers.

Bill McClendon, one of Franklin’s AP Psychology teachers, offers insight on the connection between phones and mental health. “Studies indicate that the constant use of a smartphone can lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety due to a user believing that they are ‘missing out.’” McClendon says. Humans have been comparing themselves to those around them for hundreds of years. However, due to the prevalence of smartphones and social media, it’s especially hard to escape these comparisons. Teenagers often see images on social media of their friends living a seemingly “better” life than they are, because no one puts the bad or boring parts of their life online. This makes people think that others are living happier and more interesting lives than them and that they’re missing out on fun experiences. But this isn’t showing that cellphones cause feelings of anxiety or isolation, only that phones amplify them. 

“Stress is usually at the root of and/or the trigger for issues of anxiety and depression,” says McClendon. Modern-day teenagers are under a lot more stress than teens of the past. As USA Today stated, “Spiraling college tuition leaves crippling student loan debt. Active-shooter drills in schools warn students of a real and persistent threat. And political division, the culture wars, and climate change remind young Americans of the fragility of the world they are inheriting.” Along with the usual stressors like school, work, extracurriculars, and social life, teenagers also have to worry about the crumbling world that they are being handed. This obviously isn’t good for one’s mental health. So, what should teens do to improve their mental health?

McClendon says to build more genuine, in-person relationships. “Mental health and stability are better accomplished by having healthy relationships and physical contact with others. You can’t satisfy those needs if you’re possibly cutting yourself off from those near you if you are on your smartphone.” He also says that it’s especially important for teenagers to establish good social connections because of a “stronger need to bond with peers as a function of their reproductive age and emerging sex drive, as well as their emotional development and social awareness.”

Teenagers are under much more stress now compared to teens of the past.  Phones, although they don’t cause these feelings of stress, amplify them and can have teens feeling more isolated than they did before. There are some people who see phones as the root cause, but generally they aren’t thinking about any other outside factors that could be affecting modern teens that didn’t for teens of the past, such as school shootings, climate change, crushing college debt or the constant cycle of bad news. Teenagers need to combat the feelings of loneliness and hopelessness caused by these stressors by forming stronger, healthier relationships to those around them.

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