Is Your Mobile Phone Use Bad for Your Mental Health?

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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.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Filtration Software Censored the Word Bone at a Paleontology Conference

Lisa Yount, Unsplash
Lisa Yount, Unsplash

Paleontology is the study of natural history through fossils, so the word bone comes up a lot in the field. That didn't stop the term from being censored by software at this year's Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference, The New York Times reports.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference has been held for 80 years, and this year it was conducted virtually for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new format was largely successful, except when it came to navigating the chat software's filtration system. A built-in algorithm was programmed to censor any words that may have been inappropriate for the professional event. The software blocked out anything offensive, as well as many benign words paleontologists use every day.

T. rex expert Thomas R. Holtz Jr. first noticed the problem when he tried typing "Hell Creek Formation," the name of a fossil hotspot in Montana, while responding to a question. The program replaced the word hell with four asterisks, inspiring some paleontologists to jokingly refer to the site as "Heck Creek."

Hell was one of the less surprising terms that was flagged by the software. In addition to bone, the system also blocked the words pubis, crack, penetrate, stroke, stream, and enlargement. Holtz shared a spreadsheet of the censored words on Twitter.

Convey Services, the company contracted by the conference to provide the chat software, has responded to the complaints by taking a closer look at the list of words that trigger the filter. So if the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology uses the same software again, they will be able to talk about the enlarged crack in a pubis bone they dug up near Hell Creek without fear of censorship.

[h/t The New York Times]