3 ways smartphones may be affecting our mental health

For many people, a smartphone is a fundamental part of who they are. It’s their planner, their calendar, their tool for connecting with friends and family, and their impromptu camera or social media manager. That’s the good.

But new research is starting to uncover some very real concerns related to the effect our cellphone dependency has on our bodies, particularly as it relates to our mental health.

What’s to worry about?

Research appearing on the American Psychological Association's website shows just how dependent we have become on our smartphones. By 2015, 72 percent of adults in the United States reported owning a smartphone, and in the two years since, that number has only grown, says the Pew Research Center.

As cellphone ownership has increased, so has our dependency, and early research suggests that our health is affected in three key areas.

Increased anxiety

Smartphones were designed to make our lives easier, giving us tools to use wherever we are. However, new research shows that our favorite gadgets actually increase our anxiety.

Studies involving college students, done at California State University, show that students felt increased rates of anxiety when their smartphones were taken away from them for periods of one hour. Predictably, the rate of anxiety increased based on how heavily the individual used their phone. Those who used their phone “lightly” were able to go the hour with little to no change in anxiety level, while moderate users started to feel anxious after 25 minutes. These users then saw their anxiety level increase gradually as the hour wore on.

Heavy smartphone users started to feel anxiety just 10 minutes after their phone was removed, and their anxiety levels climbed drastically throughout the hour.

Sleepless nights

Many people lie in bed at night with their phone in hand, hoping for one final search before sleep. However, research is also suggesting that these late-night browsing sessions may actually be hampering your ability to fall asleep.

A study that followed 83 college students for one week found that those who interacted with their phone before going to sleep and/or were generally more aware of their phone’s notifications had poorer sleep habits. The research also found that smartphones seemed to affect the students more drastically than laptops or tablets. Researchers hypothesize that this may be due to the phone’s smaller size, which allows it to be easily carried into bed, prolonging the time the body needs to shut down properly.

Phone notifications during the night were another large contributor that hampered sleep habits, as 40 percent of students said they had woken up to answer the phone. Forty-seven percent said their sleep had been interrupted by responding to incoming text messages.

Fewer personal connections

Smartphones were designed to connect us with those we love via text, video, social media or a simple call. However, research from the University of Michigan finds that in many cases our reliance on our smartphones is actually hurting those real-life connections because it takes away from our face-to-face interactions. Instead of having conversations with our friends or loved ones in social situations, we are becoming more likely to draw inward to our own devices and search the web or social media for the satisfaction we need.

And when it comes to social media, how we use the medium can directly affect our well-being. The same research finds that those who use social media passively — reading the posts of others without posting themselves — are more apt to feel worse after doing so than those who avoid social media altogether. Researchers chalk these worsening feelings up to possible envy as readers may wish to see themselves enjoying the experiences or destinations they see others doing.

Active social media users — those who post regularly or comment on other posts — are more likely to feel neutral, though no research yet exists to show whether active participation sheds any positive benefit.

Moving forward, phone and all

As reliance on our smartphones increases, so too will the challenges our favorite gadgets present for our mental health. Placing our focus on the three-dimensional world instead of the digital world represents the first step to using our favorite tool as just that, and nothing more.

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