Time using smartphones is a poor indicator of mental health

Updated: Dec 20, 2020


New research suggests that the amount of time spent on smartphones is an unreliable indicator of mental health.


The findings counter conclusions from previous studies, some of which claim that the longer a person spends on their smartphone, the worse their mental health will likely be.


Researchers from the University of Bath and University of Lancaster performed two studies investigating the link, enrolling a total of 148 participants across both studies.


The time people spent on their smartphones each day for a week was measured using screen time data gathered either from an app or Apple Screen Time. In addition participants were asked to rate their mental health using clinical questionnaires.


The team found that the amount a person used their smartphone was a poor predictor of anxiety, depression and stress levels, despite an average screen time of around four hours a day.


To clarify their findings further, the researchers also investigated different methods of measuring smartphone use and mental health.


Using a common method of doing so, researchers asked participants to estimate how much time they spent on their phone each day, alongside how problematic they believed their smartphone use to be.



Read more: Gaming is good for mental health – study



This secondary method of measurement returned much stronger associations between psychiatric issues and smartphone use, with some results coming out 4-times higher than the researchers' own method of measurement.


"It’s important to consider actual device use separately from people’s concerns and worries about technology," said Heather Shaw, Senior Research Associate in Psychology at Lancaster University. "This is because general device use doesn’t show any noteworthy relationships with mental health – while people’s concerns and worries about their smartphone use does."


Shaw suggests a "many voices" problem in the hunt for a link between technology use and mental health. This means that, due to so many researchers interested in the relationship, pressure builds to publish something noteworthy, which often results in low quality studies and findings.


A similar pattern has been seen in the gaming industry, says Shaw, where some research argues for the existence of "gaming disorder", even though many scientists agree that the evidence to back up this claim is of poor quality.


In fact, a recent study of 3,274 gamers that used a similar method to Shaw's team arrived at the conclusion that the length of time playing video games was actually a significant indicator of 'wellbeing', contrary to the so-called "gaming disorder" Shaw mentions.


The findings were particularly significant because the study examined a potential correlation between actual gaming time and wellbeing questionnaire results. Past studies had relied upon self-reported survey results which have been shown to be unreliable.


To read the full piece from the authors on The Conversation, click here.