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Is your iPhone bad for your mental health

Is your iPhone bad for your mental health?

Smartphones have changed the way we interact with one another. But are they also leading to mental health problems?

“I’d love to be able to use my phone less”, says Marcela, a 21-year-old student at the University of Sydney. “But I don’t think it would be possible.”

Marcela’s iPhone is her alarm clock. It’s her music player on the way to and from uni. It’s how she stays up to date on soccer news. Most importantly, it’s her connection via Facebook and Snapchat to family and friends.

But she’s wary of her iPhone dependence. She hates how phones intrude on her conversations with friends. And she worries about young kids growing up with smartphones, never knowing anything different.

Lost generation?

In a controversial article in September’s Atlantic magazine, Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, argues that smartphones are having a devastating effect on the post-Millennial generation.

Born after 1995, they’ve grown up with the internet and social media infiltrating every aspect of their lives. And now, with smartphones, it follows them wherever they go.

Referred to sometimes as Generation Z, Twenge suggests “iGen” is a more appropriate term.

Citing various ongoing surveys of young Americans, Twenge notes a number important differences between iGen and previous generations.

They spend more time at home and, presumably as a result, get into fewer scrapes – car accidents, unplanned pregnancies, and teen homicides are all down.

At the same time, mental health problems are on the rise. Suicide rates amongst 15- to 19-year-olds have also increased since 2005 (although they’re still much lower than in the 1990s).

The culprit, Twenge argues, is the smartphone. More time at home looking at a screen means less time interacting face to face with other people.

And when young people do go out, she says, the relentless Instagramming serves only to leave everyone else feeling left out.

“It’s not an exaggeration” Twenge writes “to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.”

The pushback

Twenge’s article has been met with a good deal of eye-rolling from other researchers in the field. Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, described it as “clickbait, pure and simple”.

Perhaps the harshest burn came from Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Scientist at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Twenge, she tweeted, was “cherry picking findings to support a career focused on a generally negative view of youth”.

Others, including psychology professor, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, criticized Twenge for confusing correlation with causation.

Twenge’s case leans heavily on her analysis of data from the National Institute for Drug Abuse showing that teens who spend more time on screen activity are less happy. It’s possible, as Twenge argues, that increased screen time is what’s making teens unhappy.

But Cavanagh points out that it could also go the other way. People may be using their phones more (or going out less) because they are unhappy or experiencing mental health issues. 

Marcela’s own experience illustrates the difficulties of teasing apart cause and effect. She says that some of her friends only talk about emotions when texting.

But she admits that she doesn’t know if their smartphone is stopping them have a face to face conversation – or is actually providing a way to express things they would otherwise keep to themselves.

Goldilocks effect

So is your iPhone bad for your mental health? Clearly the science isn’t as cut-and-dry as Twenge would have us believe.

And, as with many things, moderation may be the key.

A study published in January in the journal Psychological Science found evidence for a “Goldilocks effect” (not too hot, not too cold, just right). In a sample of 120,000 British 15-year-olds, very high levels of smartphone use were again linked to poor mental well being.

But kids who used their phone up to 2 hours a day actually had better mental health than those who didn’t use a smartphone at all.

Again, this is correlational data. But it would suggest that Marcela – who spends 1-2 hours on her phone per day – has a pretty healthy relationship with her phone.

She’s also developed a number of ways to stop it taking over her life. At uni she only checks it between classes. At home, she leaves it in her room unless she’s having an important conversation.

And although her iPhone is the first thing she checks in the morning, at night she turns it off, writes in her diary, and goes to bed with a paperback.

– Jon Brock

Meet Amy the virtual psychology bot or find out about careers in Applied Psychology.

ABC Science are currently running a survey on smartphone use with researchers at Griffith, Murdoch, and Western Sydney Universities. You can take part here:

If you are experiencing mental health issues or know someone who might be, contact Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or LifeLine (13 11 14 or chat online).

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