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Are Smart Phones Making Us Depressed… or is it What We Use Them For?

March 27, 2018

I was a late adopter to the Smart Phones… not because I am a technophobe but because I accurately knew that if I had one I could become a compulsive “phone inspector”.  Given that degree of self-awareness that comes from having lived for 70 years, I am able to witness my use of the phone and observe those occasions when I might be trending toward compulsion and recognize when my mood can be altered by information that presents itself on the phone.

I am opening this post with that observation because a colleague sent me an article by Jean Twenge that links ” …increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide” among teenagers with the advent of cell phones. Using a recent study she and some colleagues published in Clinical Psychological Science, Ms. Twenge found that

…the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

Ms. Twenge and her colleagues identified a strong link between trends in the rates of depression among teens and smart phone ownership and especially the time spent online, a time that increased markedly since the advent of smartphones:

We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Ms. Twenge’s post describes the vicious circle that occurs as online time expands: the time online crowds out other more wholesome means of face-to-face interaction and limits sleep, and those losses of productive and healthy time use leads to increased depression. Ms. Twenge concludes her article with the obvious solution:

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

I would add one other possible solution: mindfulness meditation. As a meditation practitioner for several decades— first through running and later through formal sitting— I found that these practices helped me cultivate self awareness which, in turn, helped me eliminate thoughts and notions that were counter-productive   and hold fast to those thoughts and notions that helped me stay emotionally strong. I am certain that my sorting process is imperfect, but I am equally certain that the process led to iterative inspection of my thought patterns (or “mental formations” as they are called in Buddhist meditation practice). More than anything, it was this self awareness that helped me understand that I needed to disable all of the pre-loaded games from the first computers I purchased and to constantly examine what I am reading and doing as I sit in front of the screen. In this day and age where we are bombarded by information designed to distract us and constantly comparing ourselves to friends and celebrities on social media, it is more crucial than ever to develop some kind of self-awareness…. and it strikes me more and more that it may well fall on public education to provide that self-awareness training. Our national well-being might depend on it.

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