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What do cell phones have to do with depression among teenagers?

What effects does growing up in the age of smartphones and social media have on the mental health of young people? This question has occupied science for years, but the answers are still imperfect: It’s something we might think we know intuitively: too many cell phones are bad for mental health, especially that of teenagers.

Every year we see news reports of mental health crises among young people. We can also feel the effects of excessive smartphone use in our lives. Even younger people are spending more time than ever on their cell phones, and that’s something anyone who lives with them can see.

It turns out that the link between mental health and excessive device use is harder to prove than you might think.

What screen time means for teenagers

A new study conducted in South Korea and just published in the journal PLOS ONE investigates what increased screen time means for adolescent mental health.

The topic isn’t exactly new; For years, researchers have tried to quantify the extent to which mobile technology and social media are harmful to young people. However, this is the first time that a survey of this type has been conducted on a national scale, with two rounds of interviews in 2017 and 2020 and more than 40,000 participants, who reported how many hours a day they spent on the phone, on average.

Adolescents were also asked about mental health, substance use and obesity.

Researchers found a significant increase in time spent in front of the screen between 2017 and 2020: if previously 30% reported spending more than 4 hours in front of the screen a day, three years later this number jumped to 55%. .

Furthermore, the more time these young people spend on their phones, the worse the rates of negative impacts on mental health, illicit substance abuse and obesity.


The results of the South Korean study are consistent with what is already known on the topic. The correlation between increased cell phone use and impaired mental health is indisputable. But the document’s shortcomings – highlighted by the researchers themselves – are significant.

The fact that the research is based on the answers provided by the study participants themselves – despite being a very common thing in this type of study – is something that has been criticized by technology experts in recent years.

“Reported usage time may not be an estimate of actual usage time and may have been underestimated due to errors [que as pessoas têm] to provide socially desirable and acceptable responses,” the study authors wrote.

Additionally, the researchers acknowledged a second limitation of the study: They didn’t track what exactly these young people were doing on their phones: TikTok? Games? Long video calls with friends?

This additional information could help better understand and clarify the impacts of smartphone use on mental health.

“We were unable to specify smartphone usage time by purpose (e.g., social media use, text messaging, education, online shopping), which may have influenced health outcomes,” the study says .

Measuring time spent in front of the screen makes no sense, says the psychologist

For Peter Etchells, professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University in the UK, it makes no sense to measure screen time, as this concept “covers literally everything”.

“For many years, researchers have been calling for a more nuanced approach, which considers more specific content and context of use,” he says.

He says it’s easy to measure screen time as a simple number in research papers, but that alone doesn’t reveal much. “If you imagine two people spending three hours in front of a screen a day, those three hours can cover such a wide range of activities that it’s not wise to try to correlate that simple number with something else, like well-being.”

Etchells, who is working on a book about the science of screen time, says the question researchers should ask is not what the relationship is between increased screen time and mental health, but rather: “Why do some people struggle with digital technology while others seem to thrive?”

In other words: when it comes to measuring the impact of cell phones on mental health, the important metric to use is not how long we use the technology, but rather what we do when we use it and how these activities may or may not affect our health mental.

Source: Terra

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