Study: Excessive Cellphone Use Linked to Anxiety, Depression

A new study by the University of Illinois shows a connection between excessive cellphone use and anxiety and depression in college-age students. A new study by the University of Illinois shows a connection between excessive cellphone use and anxiety and depression in college-age students.

Here’s another reason to consider giving your cellphone a rest.

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Compulsively checking such devices as a way to cope with or escape from uncomfortable situations has been linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students.

That’s the key finding of a recent study conducted by the University of Illinois that examined students' cellphone and Internet use and its relationship to their mental health.

The study was the brainchild of 2014 U. of I. graduate Tayana Panova, who chose to research the topic for an undergraduate honors project. 

“I perceived the use of mobile phones on campus as widespread, constant and excessive,” she said. “Intuitively, I felt that this intense attachment to devices had to have some kind of negative psychological consequence, and I wanted to conduct a study that would uncover whether that was the case.”

While previous studies have suggested a link between the use of such devices and anxiety and depression, the U. of I. study focused on a particular type of excessive use, one motivated by escapism. The study assessed two forms of escapism: one that arises from boredom and one used as a way to avoid negative emotional situations.

“Participants showed a higher tendency to use their devices when in a stressed state, and using the device for emotional escapism was found to be correlated with anxiety and depression,” said Panova. “This suggests that individuals may use devices while experiencing negative emotional states, thereby practicing a kind of ‘avoidance coping.’”

Avoidance coping is what it sounds like: avoiding a problem by ignoring it or distracting yourself from it – in this case with your cellphone – rather than dealing with the problem head-on. Research has also shown that this type of coping is unhealthy in the long-run, Panova said, adding research has shown that actively dealing with a problem is more effective.

Healthy cellphone use vs. unhealthy use

More than 300 undergraduate University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students (157 males and 161 females) were surveyed about their cellphone and Internet use, as well as their levels of anxiety and depression. Questions included the following:

  • How often do you abandon things that you are doing in order to be online longer?
  • When you have problems, do you connect to the Internet to help you evade them?
  • When you navigate the Internet, does time pass without you noticing?
  • Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cellphone use?
  • To what extent do you feel anxious when you do not receive messages or calls?
  • Do you think that life without your cellphone is boring, empty and sad?

“If you have a healthy relationship with your cellphone, it wouldn’t interfere with your job performance,” said Alejandro Lleras, a psychology professor at U. of I. who conducted the study with Panova. “What we found is [participants] that tend to score high on questionnaires of maladaptive cellphone use tend to score poorly on mental health questionnaires. They develop a high degree of anxiety in their lives or negative effects on life like depression.”

While using cellphones to avoid uncomfortable situations was associated in the study with anxiety and depression, scrolling through your phone to pass the time was not.

“Cellphones and the Internet are very easily and readily accessible. It’s not necessarily bad for you if you’re using them to distract you,” Lleras said. “But if you’re using those tools as a way to do avoidance coping to block out the stress in your life, that is problematic or seems to be problematic and could be indicative of mental health problems in your life.”

In a follow-up study, Lleras and Panova tested whether cellphones worked as a type of security blanket for people during stressful situations. To gauge this, they compared coping methods between individuals who had access to a cellphone with those who didn’t.

“The participants who were allowed to keep and use their mobile phone during the stress manipulation were less likely to show an initial stress response when faced with the stress manipulation than participants who were not allowed to keep and use their mobile phone,” Panova said. “We call this the ‘security blanket effect’ because it is analogous to how a comfort object like a security blanket helps young children be more resilient to stressors.”

This “security blanket effect” was minor and short-lived. Participants who were able to use their cellphones during the stress-induced situation were only slightly less anxious than those who didn’t have access to their cellphones.

“It didn’t matter whether they had cellphones or not,” Lleras said. “By the end of the experiment, everyone came back to the same level of anxiety that they had at the beginning.”

Both Lleras and Panova believe further study of the relationship between cellphone use and mental health is warranted.

“It may be that individuals with higher anxiety [or] depression use devices more intensively, or that using devices more intensively can eventually lead to the development [or] progression of anxiety [or] depression,” Panova said.

“Maladaptive use of a cellphone could be a complicating factor or it could simply be people who are anxious use cellphones in this way,” Lleras said. “Now what we need to do moving forward is assess longitudinal studies. Identify people at risk for mental health problems and assess over the long term if there’s a negative influence of cellphone use or pattern of cellphone use that maybe worsens their condition.”

Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @kristenthometz

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