CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Is cellphone use detrimental to mental health? A new study from the University of Illinois finds that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students.
The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
“There’s a long history of the public fearing new technologies as they are deployed in society,” said U. of I. psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who conducted this study with undergraduate honors student Tayana Panova. This fear of new technology happened with televisions, video games and most recently, smartphones, he said. With the growth of mobile technology and the accompanying concern about its mental health implications, the researchers wanted to explore the connection between these information and communication technologies and psychological well-being.
Lleras and Panova surveyed over 300 university students with questionnaires that addressed the students’ mental health, level and manner 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 of the study was to see whether high engagement with the Internet and mobile phones affects psychological well-being and, if so, the manner in which this influence occurs,” Panova said. “More specifically, we wanted to explore whether using devices for emotional escapism is problematic 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.
Using these technologies for escapism was found to have a relationship with higher depression and anxiety scores. However, the researchers found no relationship between cellphone or Internet use and negative mental health outcomes among participants who used these technologies to avoid being bored. 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 and Panova tested how having a mobile phone or not having one in a stressful situation affected participants’ responses to the stressor. 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, he said.
“However, for the participants who did become stressed after the stressor was presented, it did not matter whether they had a mobile phone at hand or not: The stress response was the same in all conditions,” Panova said. “These results together suggest that mobile technology may be utilized as a ‘security blanket’ in the face of stress, but may not actually be an effective stress alleviator.”
With growing support for the connection between technology use and mental health, the relationship between motivation for cellphone or Internet use and well-being warrants further exploration, Lleras said. Breaking intensive technology-use habits may provide an important supplemental treatment for addressing mental health issues such as general anxiety disorder or depression, he said.
“We shouldn’t be scared of people connecting online or talking on their phones. The interaction with the device is not going to make you depressed if you are just using it when you are bored,” Lleras said. “This should go toward soothing some of that public anxiety over new technology. However, research on intensive engagement with devices is indicating their clear role in mental health, so the manner in which the two are connected merits further study.”