How Your Smartphone Use Impacts Your Health and Happiness

Dating in the Digital Age: Party of Four

You have probably seen this.  A couple sits down at a restaurant or coffee shop, and the first thing they do, even before beginning a conversation, is place their phones on the table in front of them, making them a party of four instead of two.  And a party it is, as the two phones usually create plenty of noise, beeping and buzzing, screens lighting up every time a notification arrives, demanding immediate attention.

Although phone etiquette has evolved over the years, such behavior, even when out with an important client or on a first date, is probably expected to some extent in the modern age.  Unfortunately, research shows that smartphone reliance has the potential to negatively impact our personal lives.  

Research by Éilish Duke (2017) explored how smartphones impact productivity.[i] Among other findings, she noted that participants reported smartphone use negatively impacted professional life as well as personal life.  She described her findings as consistent with prior research on “technostress,” loosely defined as the negative influence of technology on emotions, attitudes, and behavior.

And in terms of how technology impacts users, apparently age matters.

Young Mobile Device Users and Mental Health

Many parents like smartphones because they can communicate with their children around the clock.  Young adults, however, feel differently about constant digital accessibility.

Duke cites previous research that found that for many young people, the smartphone´s ability to make them accessible around the clock caused them to never feel free, and to feel guilty about not being able to respond to all of their messages and calls.  That research also found that contrary to popular belief, smartphone use did not increase social support.  Instead, young people who reported the constant accessibility afforded by smartphones to be stressful were at risk of suffering mental health problems one year later.

Regarding the association between mobile devices and mental health, other research shows the impact depends on how people use their phones.    

Social or Serious: How Apps Influence Attitude

Do you spend your time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or is your home screen full of downloaded informational applications?  This is an important question because apparently, apps matter.

Jon D. Elhai et al. (2017) distinguished between social and non-social use of smartphones.[ii]  They found that non-social use of smartphones was more strongly correlated with depression than social use.  They defined social smartphone use as involving social feature engagement, such as messaging or social networking, and process use as involving non-social feature engagement, such as using the phone for entertainment or reading news.

They found that symptoms of anxiety were more strongly correlated with process versus social use of smartphones. Symptoms of depression were negatively correlated with a higher amount of social smartphone use.  

Explained another way, Elhai et al. found that the behaviors of people with different measures of anxiety and depression was linked with the way they used their phones.  They found that people with greater anxiety preferred non-social smartphone use to social smartphone use.  They found that people with more severe depression severity engaged in less socially related use of their smartphones.  

The Social Side of Smart Phones 

Elhai et al. note their findings are consistent with research which has shown that active social media use (posting, liking, and commenting) versus passive social media use (scrolling and reading) is positively linked with mental well-being.  Their findings are also consistent with the fact that depression is often linked with social withdrawal—which results in use of the process features of a smartphone, but not the social features.

Elhai et al. note that contrary to the concerns of some people who believe technology will replace face-to-face interaction, research establishes that smart phone use does not decrease offline social interaction.  They note that Internet and/ or the use of smartphones increases social skills, social engagement, and social support, and reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness.

They state that less adaptive process smartphone use explained the relationship between problematic smartphone use and anxiety. Citing prior research, they observe, “These results support the rich get richer model in explaining that depressive and anxious psychopathology appear to hold people back from using technology in meaningful ways to be productive, instead leading to less adaptive, non-social, and excessive problematic smartphone use.”

Smart Smartphone Use

For optimal emotional health, smartphone use should balance the social with the serious.  For data retrieval, it is great to have a computer at your fingertips. But it is also great to have a direct connection with loved ones.  Best to take advantage of both features.  

References

[i]Éilish Duke, “Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity,” Addictive Behaviors Reports 6, 2017, 90-95.

[ii]Jon D. Elhai, Jason C. Levine, Robert D. Dvorak, and Brian J. Hall, “Non-social features of smartphone use are most related to depression, anxiety and problematic smartphone use,” Computers in Human Behavior 69, (2017) 75-82.

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