Guilt-free scrolling: Prolonged smartphone use isn’t bad for mental health after all, study says

LANCASHIRE, United Kingdom — Modern society tends to view smartphones and all their features as both a blessing and a curse. These devices enrich our lives in many ways, but over the past few years it’s become increasingly clear that it’s quite possible to go overboard and use them too much as well. Surprisingly, however, a new study finds smartphone use isn’t an accurate predictor of mental health issues like anxiety, stress, and depression. Researchers from Lancaster University, the University of Bath, and the University of Lincoln say they can find no evidence that smartphone use is related to poor mental health.

Between sleep-disturbing blue light, constantly checking social media, and the never-ending stream of news, there’s quite a few reasons to think extended phone time cultivates poor mental health. But, the results of this study just don’t support that theory.

The research team tracked daily phone use time among 199 iPhone owners and 46 Android users for one week. Study authors also asked the group about their mental health and filled out surveys measuring depression and anxiety. Participants completed an additional survey asking them how problematic they consider their personal smartphone use.

Worries over smartphone usage are worse than actually using them

“A person’s daily smartphone pickups or screen time did not predict anxiety, depression, or stress symptoms. Additionally, those who exceeded clinical ‘cut off points’ for both general anxiety and major depressive disorder did not use their phone more than those who scored below this threshold,” says lead study author Heather Shaw of Lancaster’s Department of Psychology in a university release.

Moreover, the research suggests that it’s not actual smartphone use that leads to anxiety, but worries related to using one’s phone too much. Many participants report feeling extra stressed after realizing they had spent more time than intended on their phone. This finding was reached via the aforementioned problematic use survey that asked participants to rate their agreement with statements like “using my smartphone longer than I had intended”, and “having tried time and again to shorten my smartphone use time but failing all the time.”

“It is important to consider actual device use separately from people’s concerns and worries about technology. This is because the former doesn’t show noteworthy relationships with mental health, whereby the latter does,” Shaw notes.

Study authors say people’s preconceived notions and concerns about the harmful effects of smartphones may be influencing any number of studies looking at this topic.

Mobile technologies have become even more essential for work and day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our results add to a growing body of research that suggests reducing general screen time will not make people happier. Instead of pushing the benefits of digital detox, our research suggests people would benefit from measures to address the worries and fears that have grown up around time spent using phones,” Dr. David Ellis, from the University of Bath’s School of Management, concludes.

The study is published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior.

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