06 November 2019

Is your teen glued to their smartphone? If so, they may be at risk for depression

A new study has revealed that younger people who are addicted to their smartphones may be at an increased risk for depression and loneliness.

With an app for almost anything, it should come as no surprise that teenagers cannot get enough of their smartphones.

However, there may be a cause for concern, because research has found a link between smartphone dependency and symptoms of depression and loneliness. It is unclear whether people start relying on their smartphones before the symptoms begin to show or whether depressed people are more likely to become dependent on their smartphone. 

A dangerous combination

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, looked at 346 older adolescents, ages 18–20 and it was found that smartphone dependency can predict higher reports of loneliness and depressive symptoms. The study was conducted by Matthew Lapierre and collaborators.

"The main takeaway is that smartphone dependency directly predicts later depressive symptoms," said Lapierre, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the college of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona. "There is an issue where people are entirely too reliant on the device, in terms of feeling anxious if they don't have it accessible, and they're using it to the detriment of their day-to-day life."


In the study, Lapierre and his co-authors looked at smartphone dependency, which is a person's psychological reliance on the device – rather than on general use of their smartphone, which could potentially provide a few health benefits.

"The research grows out of my concern that there is too much of a focus on general use of smartphones," Lapierre said. "Smartphones can be useful. They help us connect with others. We've really been trying to focus this idea of dependency and problematic and problematic use of smartphones being the driver for these psychological outcomes."

Researchers measured smartphone dependency by asking study participants to use a four-point scale to rate a series of statements, like "I panic when I cannot use my smartphone". The participants were also required to answer questions which were designed to measure loneliness, depressive symptoms and daily smartphone use. They responded to the questions at the beginning of the study and then again four months later. 

The focus of the study focused on older adolescents, a population researchers believe could be significant because: 

  • They grew up with smartphones.
  • They are at an age and transitioning into a stage in life where they are vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes, like depression.

The way forward

Given the negative effects of smartphone dependency, it may be worthwhile for people to evaluate the relationship between themselves and their smartphones, so that they can self-impose boundaries if necessary, researchers said.

Communication master's student, Pengfei Zhao, co-author of the study said, "When people feel stressed, they should use other healthy approaches to cope, like talking to a close friend to get support or doing some exercises or meditation."

Lapierre concluded by saying, "The work we're doing is answering some essential questions about the psychological effects of smartphone dependency. Then we can start asking, 'OK, why is this the case?'"

Image credit: iStock