How Does Mobile Phone Usage Affect Mental Health? Apple’s and Google’s New “Screen Time” Features

As smartphones become increasingly common and further integrated into daily life, analysts and researchers have begun to question users’ dependency on their mobile devices. Mobile usage continues to proliferate, and Apple’s iOS app store hosts more than 2 million apps alone, and a 2016 Common Sense Media study found that 50 percent of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices. Although mobile phones have brought a huge amount of convenience to consumers, regular mobile usage has been linked to impacting mental health, which may have led Apple to recently (on June 4)  introduce a companion feature to help consumers “untether.”

According to a study conducted by Alejandro Lleras and Tayana Panova of the University of Illinois, consumers who defined themselves as possessing highly addictive behaviors regarding Internet and cellphones were far more likely to have significant depression and/or anxiety. The study reports:

“In Study 1, participants were given questionnaires to assess their manner of mobile phone and Internet use and their levels of depression and anxiety. There were strong positive relationships between lower mental health and problematic  Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use, especially when people turned to ICTs to avoid negative experiences or feelings. However, when participants used ICTs merely to escape boredom, no link was found between ICT use and mental health problems.

Study 2 was completed to observe how students utilize their mobile phones to cope or escape from feelings related to an anxiety-inducing situation. Results indicated that the mobile phone may offer a small “security blanket” effect, lowering the initial negative reaction to stress, although the pattern of stress over the course of the experiment was the same for participants in all groups. [The] findings suggest that long term utilization of ICTs as an emotional coping strategy may have a negative influence on mental health and/or exacerbate mental health predispositions.”

In a follow up study, Lleras and Panova found having cellphone access impacted the extent to which external stressors negatively affect a person. During their experiment, Lleras and Panova found that participants with access to their cellphones prior to the introduction of the external stressor were better able to “resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation.” Ultimately, “this benefit was both small and short-lived, but suggests the phone might serve as a comfort item in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.” However, in the case of the participants who were noticeably stressed by the external stressor, it “did not matter whether they had a mobile phone at hand or not: The stress response was the same in all conditions […] These results together suggest that mobile technology may be utilized as a ‘security blanket’ in the face of stress, but may not actually be an effective stress alleviator.”

Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellbeing features help allow consumers to be more mindful of their usage and its impact on their daily lives. Both features allow for users to impose time limits for apps and reminders when they have been exceeded. However, Google takes things a step further. Google’s beta model greys out apps on one’s home screen and won’t allow users to “unpause” the app unless the user manually removes the time limit. Apple strategy seeks to inform consumers of their behavior while Google seeks to more directly influence consumers through providing harsher feedback.

Image Copyright: PhotographerStock Photo, License Summary.

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