Is Your Mobile Phone Use Bad for Your Mental Health?

iStock
iStock

Smartphones, those digital portals of constant information, have become so integrated into most Americans’ lives, they’re like extra—yet essential—appendages. Some 72 percent of Americans own a smartphone, compared to the global median of 43 percent. But studies have shown that overuse can have a negative impact on your posture, eyesight, and hearing, not to mention distract drivers and pedestrians. More recently, researchers who study the relationship of mobile phone use and mental health have also found that excessive or “maladaptive” use of our phones may be leading to greater incidences of depression and anxiety in users.

It is, however, tricky to parse out whether or not excessive phone use causes these symptoms, or rather if it just exacerbates existing depression and anxiety. Mental Floss took a look at the findings from some recent studies on the subject and asked a clinical psychologist to weigh in.

FOMO CAN BE A FACTOR

A 2016 study in Computers in Human Behavior, titled "Fear of Missing out, need for touch, anxiety and depression are related to problematic smartphone use," set out to explore previously reported causality between “problematic smartphone use and severity of depression and anxiety symptoms.” A total of 308 university students—165 men and 143 women—answered a questionnaire that assessed their mental health, their cell phone and Internet usage, and the reasons they used them.

People who scored higher on scales known as “fear of missing out” (you know—FOMO) and “need for touch” were more likely to overuse their phones. And those who overused their phones were more likely to score higher on the depression and anxiety scales, possibly because, according to the study, problematic smartphone use “may interfere with other pleasurable activities and disrupt social activities, thereby reducing behavioral activation and subsequently increasing depression.”

A NEGATIVE FEEDBACK LOOP

Cell phones, and smartphones in particular, have an undeniably addictive quality, earning an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 5th edition. A review of literature on cell phone addiction, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, describes cell phone and technology addiction manifesting in one or more of the following ways: choosing to use your device even in "dangerous or prohibited contexts;" losing interest in other activities; feeling irritable or uneasy if separated from your phone; or feeling anxiety or loneliness when you’re unable to send or receive an immediate message. The researchers also find that adolescents and women may be more susceptible to this behavioral addiction.

USING YOUR PHONE TO AVOID NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

This negative feedback loop of addiction may pose problems for people who already have trouble regulating negative emotions or tend to suppress them; they may turn to the phone as a coping mechanism. Initially, this may help as a distraction, but over time, it creates a pattern that has negative impact on mental health.

In a 2015 study, also published in Computers in Human Behavior, that examined 318 graduate students at the University of Illinois, researchers found that people who already experience depression and anxiety often turn to their phones or other “information and communication technologies” (ICTs) as a tool for avoidance coping—temporarily distracting themselves from negative feelings. Over a long period of time, this can make a person more vulnerable to mental health problems. But if you’re thinking of how often you check Twitter to make it through a morning commute, don’t panic: Using the phone or other technology is only maladaptive over the long run “when users are attempting to escape negative feelings, thoughts, or experiences and thereby recruit the ICTs as a kind of therapeutic tool,” they clarify.

Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist with the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in California, specializes in anxiety and depression. He tells Mental Floss that in his opinion, the research isn’t conclusive yet on whether cell phone or technology use actually causes depression, but he does agree that avoidance and escapism behaviors, including a social media fixation, can “take you away from addressing problem[s] head on.” He says he can envision a pattern of behavior where initial stress and anxiety might increase cell phone use, taking the person away from what he calls “anti-depressant activities,” such as socializing, exercising, and working. “Then the risk of negative feelings may increase,” Minden says.

While his patients don’t typically report that cell phone or technology use makes them depressed or anxious, he does hear a lot that “electronic media in general really takes them away from more productive work. It’s certainly one of many escape or avoidance behaviors.”

DOES THE METHOD MATTER?

Researchers still haven’t comprehensively explored the different ways people are using their smartphones and other technology, and how these differences might contribute to their mental health. Minden feels it would be more relevant to distinguish “specific cell phone behaviors, not just global cell phone use.” For example, does it make a difference if someone uses their phone for social media or internet browsing, versus texting their friends? The 2015 Computers in Human Behavior study on avoidance did find that “lonely individuals” preferred voice calls over texting, while anxious participants preferred texting over voice calls—suggesting the method of use is connected to, and has an impact on, users’ mental health, both before and after they use their technology.

Minden is more inclined to consider logical consequences of phone use, such as how cell phone usage at night might disrupt normal sleep habits, leading to fatigue, which can cause depression and anxiety symptoms. He cites one longitudinal study published in the journal Child Development, studying 1101 Australian high school students age 13 to 16, which found that poor sleep quality associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, including depression and low self-esteem. Minden was especially interested in the result that the students who used their cell phones frequently in the evenings were at greater risk for depression the following year. “What we can conclude from that study is that perhaps initially high levels of use in your early teen years may predict later depression,” he says.

So while the research remains inconclusive, it might be worth taking a look at how you feel before and after you spend copious amounts of time on your cell phone. It may be harmless—or it may offer an opportunity to improve your mental health.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

HBO Max: Everything You Need to Know About the New Streaming Service

What will you binge-watch first?
What will you binge-watch first?
WarnerMedia

This week, WarnerMedia launched HBO Max, the long-awaited streaming platform that the company hopes can compete with the likes of Netflix and Disney+. But with HBO GO and HBO NOW already in existence, the addition of a third platform for HBO content has caused no small amount of confusion among both prospective customers and current HBO subscribers. Here are answers to all your burning questions about the buzzworthy new service.

What is HBO Max?

HBO Max is a direct-to-consumer streaming platform that you can download as an app or access through your cable or internet provider. Just like Apple has Apple TV+ and Amazon has Prime Video, WarnerMedia now has HBO Max.

How is HBO Max different from HBO NOW and HBO GO?

hbo max streaming platform
This user's viewing habits are eclectic, to say the least.
WarnerMedia

Before HBO Max, WarnerMedia had two different apps with the same library of HBO series and certain Warner Bros. films. HBO GO is for viewers who already pay for HBO through their cable TV provider, which is why you have to log in through your TV provider. HBO NOW is for independent subscribers who pay $15 a month for access to the same content. In other words, HBO GO is for customers with cable, and HBO NOW is for those without it.

Like HBO NOW, HBO Max is an independent subscription service that you don’t need a TV provider in order to access. The main difference comes down to content: While HBO NOW and HBO GO only include HBO series and some films, HBO Max offers tons of additional shows and films licensed from other distributors—plus new, exclusive originals (more on that in a minute).

How much does HBO Max cost, and how do I get it?

You can sign up for HBO Max here. Your first seven days will be free, and it will cost you $15 per month after that.

Do I already have access to HBO Max?

If you’re already an HBO NOW subscriber, your app should have automatically updated to the HBO Max app (if you don’t have automatic updates enabled, make sure to update it manually), and you can log into HBO Max using your existing HBO NOW credentials. Your recurring monthly payment of $15 will also now automatically start applying to HBO Max instead of HBO NOW.

If you watch HBO through your TV or mobile provider, there’s a good chance you can access HBO Max at no additional cost, too. Apple TV channels, AT&T TV, DIRECTV, Hulu, Spectrum, Verizon FIOS, Xfinity, and many other providers are included—you can see the full list here.

Which platforms will HBO Max be on?

You can stream HBO Max on your desktop on HBOMax.com, or you can download the app through the Apple app store, Google Play, or Samsung TV. You can also access HBO Max content on your TV through any of the providers listed here.

What's playing on HBO Max?

hbo max channel hubs
Elmo and James Dean in the same place, at last.
WarnerMedia

HBO Max boasts 10,000 hours of content that includes all HBO shows, many Warner Bros. films from the past century, new Max Original series, and other programs from CNN, Cartoon Network, TNT, TBS, TCM, Adult Swim, and more.

To name a few highlights, the service currently offers all eight Harry Potter films, all 10 seasons of Friends, an exclusive selection of Studio Ghibli classics like Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) and Spirited Away (2002), and 2019’s Joker. The first few episodes of some highly-anticipated Max Originals are also available, including Anna Kendrick’s rom-com series Love Life, the voguing house reality competition Legendary, and Sesame Workshop's The Not-Too-Late Show With Elmo (featuring guests Kacey Musgraves, John Mulaney, the Jonas Brothers, Lil Nas X, and more—so far).

Will I get to see the Friends Reunion?

Yes, the Friends reunion will definitely debut on HBO Max, but no air date has been confirmed yet. Production was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re tentatively hoping to film it sometime this summer. (But hey, at least you have access to all the other Friends episodes to help you pass the time.)