Undergrad’s research suggests link between phone use and mental health

By Vivienne Henning

“It seemed that people in all places and at all times – on the street, in class, at bus stops, during parties – had a device in hand and a screen in front of their faces,” Panova said. “Intuitively, I felt that this intense attachment to devices had to have some kind of negative psychological consequence, and I wanted to conduct a study that would uncover whether that was the case.”

Panova worked alongside psychology professor Alejandro Lleras and compared their hypotheses of how cell phone use has an effect on people’s state of mental health.

Lleras cited that he feels that this influx of technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Whenever new technology has been introduced in people’s lives, (such as) TV and video games, there’s been a knee-jerk reaction where people say it’s horrible, (that) technology is going to be bad just because people engage with it so much,” he said. “Now we have generations of people who have grown up with TV and video games and it’s not necessarily true that just engaging with technology is going to necessarily make you bad or create problems in your life.”

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The increase in cell phone usage and other technology has correlated with a rise in mental health disorders. The American College of Health Association releases reports each year of college students’ mental health across the country. In the reports released, during spring of 2011, 10.7 percent of college students reported being diagnosed with depression, and that percentage jumped to 13.1 percentage of spring 2015.

“I feel as though the increase in tech usage leads to less focus in the moment,” said Brett Cohen, freshman in LAS. “Thus, there is information overload, that can lead to raised anxiety.”

To see if there is a relationship between technology use and mental health, Lleras and Panova gave questionnaires to around 300 undergraduate students, asking them questions about their cell phone use and the students’ state of mental health.

They found that high engagement with mobile phones and the Internet was correlated with higher anxiety and depression, as well as using devices for emotional coping and escape from negative emotions. But using devices to alleviate boredom was not associated with bad mental health.

“(It’s) difficult to pinpoint why exactly the relationship between excessive device use and mental health problems exists,” Panova said. “In our study we identified a potential reason for this relationship (was) escapism. Participants showed a higher tendency to use their devices when in a stressed state, and using the device for emotional escapism was found to be correlated with anxiety and depression.”

This practice can also be identified as ‘avoidance coping,’ which is a method of dealing with problems by ignoring them or distracting oneself to avoid actively dealing with the problem. This is generally viewed as unhealthy for people’s psychological well-being in the long run.

Part of the duo’s experiment was to see how students interacted with their phones when introduced to stressors. The results suggested that phones provide an initial ‘security blanket effect’ in anxiety-inducing situations.

“This shows that students are indeed turning to their devices when they are distressed or uncomfortable. However, our research also shows that higher escapist use of devices is related to higher psychological problems,” Panova said. “Therefore, students who engage with their devices in order to escape stressful, awkward or uncomfortable situations and emotions are likely doing themselves a disservice. (They’re) seeking relief in something that can’t effectively provide it and simultaneously forfeiting opportunities to develop healthy internal coping mechanisms.”

Technology now has a more active role than ever in our everyday lives, but the possibility of linking phone use to mental health shouldn’t stop people from using technology. The findings of their research shows that if individuals used their phones when they were bored and to pass the time, there was no correlation to people’s mental health.

“We cannot conclude that the device is what makes people depressed or anxious. We don’t know, because this is a correlational study,” Lleras said. “The important thing to know is that if you notice people using cell phones in this way, then that is indicative that perhaps that person is having mental health issues because there’s this positive correlation. We can use one as an indicator for the other.”

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