Virtual anxiety: Does smartphone use cause depression?
As new research shows smartphone use is linked to depression, we report on the very modern problem of being too connected
Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30
Recently I've been feeling more and more that my smartphone use is negatively impacting my life. It's difficult to put my finger on why exactly; it's not that I think my iPhone is out to get me (although Siri does sound really bitchy sometimes). As with most compulsions, it's perhaps how I use my phone that's the problem than the handset itself.
More and more, I've noticed that my lowest moods are the times that I'm over-attached to my phone. From separation anxiety when it's not in my hand, to feeling cut off from the real world when I'm absorbed in the online one, I often lament the extent to which technology has taken over my life.
That's why I'm not surprised to see that new research from the States has discovered a link between smartphone usage and depression. A study from Northwestern University revealed that the more time people spent using a phone for any reason, the more likely they were to be depressed. The average daily use for a depressed individual was 68 minutes, while for someone in better mental health it was 17 minutes.
This shook me, because I know I spend far longer than that on my phone outside my working hours. And I know that the more I'm on my phone, the worse I feel - like I'm using it as a security blanket, but it's having an adverse effect.
And I'm not alone. I (ironically) asked the Twittersphere their thoughts, and my phone blew up. "I use my phone so much I have to charge it twice a day," says 31 year-old bar manager John Ennis.
"I have to throw the phone away from me or put it in another room to stop using it."
"It's a catch 22," says Shona Ellen, a 25-year-old blogger. "I feel anxious checking it, and anxious if I don't."
"I can't really watch TV without my phone," says 30-year-old site curator Aidan Hanratty. "It's rude, but I don't stop myself."
These days, there's no such thing as a real digital detox. Even when we're on holidays, we're tethered to home and all its stresses and strains like never before. You might have your "out of office" on, but unless you're deep in the rainforest as far from wifi as possible, you're still connected.
Yes, we could switch off our phones at the weekend, but it's only a temporary fix. More than ever before, our ability to connect with others is limiting our ability to really switch off - so no wonder we're feeling anxious and even mildly depressed.
I'll notice myself mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, absorbing largely useless information that does little but irritate me. It's almost like a tick, something that I do when I'm bored and restless.
But it doesn't remedy my fidgeting, on the contrary it agitates me to the point where I'm not sleeping as well as I used to; instead of stopping to smell the roses on a beautiful day, I'm more concerned with getting a good picture of them for Instagram. This is not good for my mojo.
Last week, a man in London was arrested for attempting to charge his phone using a socket on the Tube, while another guy in the States interrupted a Broadway show looking for somewhere to plug in his smartphone.
We can scoff at this behaviour, but how many of us have portable chargers in our handbags (me!) in case we run out of juice, or feel anxious if the 4G signal is patchy? Part of the problem is an over-reliance on our gadgets of course, but there are myriad reasons why being constantly attached to phones can affect our mental health.
Firstly, it creates a bubble of solitude. The more I'm on my phone, the less I'm up and about doing positive, real-life things. Every minute I'm absorbed in my handset is a minute I'm not exercising, dog-walking, cooking, cleaning, shopping, or even chatting in real life with my nearest and dearest.
There are evenings when my other half and I are allegedly watching a film, but we're really both on our phones and detached from reality.
Then, it's what I'm actually doing on my phone. Most of it is vacuous and none of it is useful - filtering pictures for Instagram, playing Candy Crush, looking at clothes I'm never going to buy on my favourite shopping app and - worst of all - reading shallow gossip stories on websites designed to make us feel bad about ourselves.
And there's the FOMO - fear of missing out - that makes a nice Saturday night sitting in on the sofa unbearable. I wasn't pushed about attending last week's Longitude Festival because I was in the throes of a nasty sinus infection. Then images from Marlay Park flooded Facebook and I was suddenly consumed by envy and a feeling of inadequacy.
Most of all, it's the skewed image of other people's lives that we're presented with that worries me. If we believe that everybody else's existence was as perfectly filtered, cropped and Photoshopped as it appears to be online, no doubt our own realities compare harshly.
Facebook and Instagram are obvious culprits when it comes to attempted oneupmanship of our peers. If you go for brunch and don't share a photograph of what you ate, did you really eat it at all?
"People are terribly attached to their phones, and struggle to be separated from them," says Gerry Cooney, an addiction specialist and counsellor at the Rutland Centre. "This can cause issues, especially in relationships, when it comes to being emotionally present.
"We might need to practice discipline, a mutual agreement to switch off in the evenings. If that proves difficult, it's evidence of a lack of control."
My anxiety isn't caused by my phone, but it is exacerbated by it. Modern life is relentless, and constant connectivity makes it hard to relax. I know the notifications clamouring for my attention can wait, but it's my inner people-pleaser that's insistent on getting back to them right away.
The answer is perhaps to limit my smartphone usage as I do my sugar consumption - evidence yet again that you can have too much of a good thing.