Do Phones Hurt Mental Health? A New Study Suggests No, Actually

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Adults seem to love bemoaning how much teenagers are on their phones, citing smartphone use as a primary cause of the increase in adolescent depression and other mental health struggles. But a new study suggests that heavy use of smartphones may not be bad for teenagers, especially when those teens are texting their friends. And it's not just teenagers that can benefit from using your smartphone strategically: combating loneliness and seeking mental health support through texting doesn't stop post-adolescence, according to the mental health support service Crisis Text Line.

The new study focused on teens but has implications that transcend age. Published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, the study tracked the smartphone usage and mental health symptoms of nearly 2,000 teenagers for three years. The research focused intensively on 400 of these young people by checking in multiple times a day about cell phone use and mental health symptoms. The young people participating in the study were from a racially and economically diverse public school system in North Carolina, and they ranged from ages 10 to 15 during the years of the study.

After extensive check-ins with the students, the study concluded that young people who logged more time on their phones during the first year of the study were not more likely to experience depression or other mental health struggles in the later years of the study. And on a more day-to-day basis, the study also noted that the teens' daily mood fluctuations were not negatively impacted by cell phone use.

In fact, teens who used their phones to check in with their friends via text reported feeling more connected to the world and less depressed. The more texts the teens sent to their friends on any given day, the less distressed they reported feeling on that day.

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This is perhaps unsurprising, given that people who receive more IRL support than online support are likely to experience less daily stress than people who rely solely on online support, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research. So it makes sense that the young people surveyed in the Clinical Psychological Science study felt better when they were texting friends. These friends also were likely to appear in the teens' IRL experiences and offer social support offline. This kind of support, both IRL and through texting, may have been important in the newer study's conclusions that texting friends can actually improve mental health.

However, clinical psychologist Dr. Danielle Einstein argued in an essay published on The Conversation in October 2017 that becoming reliant on responses to texts can negatively impact your mental health, regardless of your age. The uncertainty of knowing when your friends will respond, especially when you're chatting in a messaging format that shows you when a message has been read, can greatly increase anxiety. This may be particularly so for people who already have a heightened sensitivity to rejection, such as people who experience depression and anxiety.

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And sure enough, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that people with depression and anxiety have a particularly high intolerance for uncertainty. And if you've ever sent a text that you were nervous about sending, you know how deep that uncertainty can run when it takes a while for your friend to get back to you.

And yet, a 2018 study in the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior found that over a third of teens with suicide ideations were significantly helped by texting interventions. Another 2018 study published in the journal Advances in Social Work found that text-based counseling was effective in improving the mental health of young people without access to other forms of counseling, who might otherwise have not received any help.

So for folks of all ages who find solace in texting, science seems to be supporting the idea that texting can provide an important boost in mental health. And regardless of what the studies say, it's important to find a way to use (or not use) your smartphone in whatever ways feel best to you, because no one knows what you need better than you do.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.