Early-Life Smartphone Use Tied to Poorer Mental Health in Gen Z

May 18, 2023 – America’s fascination and dependence on smartphones seems to know no end – and if you think it’s common for kids to be staring at their screens as much as adults do, you’re right. Several studies have found that more kids are using smartphones and similar digital devices (like tablets) and at younger ages. 

A 2020 Pew Research Center report found that more than a third of the 1,600 parents interviewed said their child began using a smartphone before the age of 5, and a quarter said their child’s smartphone engagement began between ages 5 and 8.

And a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media found that over half of U.S. kids have their own smartphone by the time they’re 11. 

But is this growing use of smartphones good for kids’ mental health? A new report by Sapien Labs, published this week, used global data from 27,969 Generation Z young adults (ages 18-24) to focus on the possible relationship between childhood smartphone use and current mental health. After all, this is “the first generation who went through adolescence with this technology,” explains Tara Thiagarajan, PhD, founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs. 

The report found that mental well-being “consistently improved with older age of first ownership of a smartphone or tablet, with a steeper change in females, compared to males.”

In fact, the percentage of females with mental health challenges decreased from 74% for those who received their first smartphone at age 6 to 46% for those who received it at age 18. In males, the percentage dropped from 42% who received their first smartphone at age 6 to 36% who received it at age 18.

“The earlier you got your smartphone as a child, the more likely you are to have worse mental well-being as an adult,” Thiagarajan said.

Path of Decline in Mental Health

Thiagarajan said her organization was motivated to conduct the study because they “track the evolving mental well-being of the world with the view towards understanding what is driving the current decline of mental well-being in younger generations.”

Their goals are “to uncover the root causes so that we can identify appropriate preventative strategies that can reverse the trend.”

She noted that the “trajectory of the decline we’re seeing [in mental health] tracks the advent of smartphones, and there is quite a bit of literature linking social media and the smartphone to negative outcomes, so it was high on the list of potential root causes to explore.”

She explained that Sapien Labs’ Global Mind Project is an “ongoing survey of global mental well-being, along with various lifestyle and life experience factors.” It “acquires data using an assessment that spans 47 elements covering a wide range of symptoms and mental capabilities on a life impact scale that are combined to provide an aggregate score.”

One of the categories examined is Social Self – a “measure of how we view ourselves and relate to others.” It is one of six parts of mental function, and it improved most dramatically with older age of first smartphone ownership in young men and young women. 

“For females, other dimensions such as mood and outlook and adaptability and resilience also improved steeply” in those who got their first smartphone at older ages. Notably, problems with suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression toward others, a sense of being detached from reality, and hallucinations “declined most steeply and significantly” with older age of first smartphone ownership for females, and for males as well, but to a lesser degree.

Smartphones Amplify Existing Mental Health Challenges

Katerina Voci, a 17-year-old senior at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ, has had mental health challenges all of her life – particularly anxiety and depression. “I’ve been working through them, and I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made,” she said.

Although she didn’t start using smartphones in early childhood – she didn’t get her first one until eighth grade – she believes that smartphone use may have worsened her mental health issues since then.

“It depended on what sort of media I used,” she said. “Social media was the biggest aspect of my smartphone use.”

Katerina wasn’t surprised to learn the results of Sapien’s report. “There is a distinct beauty standard that a lot of people, especially women, try to achieve, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform, and that’s driven by digital devices like smartphones.”

Also, “there’s still teasing and bullying online that can affect mental health. It’s easier to engage in bullying when you’re hidden behind a screen because there’s less accountability than if you were in person,” she said.

Katerina, who is a hands-on peer mediator and mentor to schoolmates with mental health challenges, has deleted her social media accounts because she felt that being online wasn’t conductive to her mental health.

Simena Carey, MA, a certified school counselor at St. Benedict’s Prep School, is a clinician who works with Katerina and other youngsters. “Working with the girls, I see that a lot of them already come with feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, and the phones amplify that.”

Feeling left out is common when using social media, where everyone seems to be on vacation, have perfect bodies, or be having fun. Youngsters wonder, “Why am I not doing these things?” They end up being in “silent competition” with each other, Carey said. The younger they start, the more that mindset is created and reinforced.

Ripple Effect

Research has shown that kids spend between 5 and 8 hours online daily, according to Thiagarajan. “That’s up to 2,950 hours a year! Before the smartphone, a lot of this time would have been spent engaging in some way with family and friends.”

She calls social behavior “complex,” noting that it “needs to be learned and practiced for us to get good at it and build relationships.” But today’s kids aren’t getting enough social practice, “so they struggle in the social world. Social activity on the internet is not the same [as in-person socializing] because it both distorts reality and eliminates a lot of the modes of communication like eye contact, mirroring of body language, touch, and olfaction that are crucial for human bonding.”

Benjamin Maxwell, MD, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, and chair of behavioral health at Rady Children’s Hospital, wasn’t surprised by the findings in Sapien’s study.

“At Rady Children’s Hospital, it’s common for us to see patients who struggle with mental health concerns due to their relationship with their smartphone,” he said. “From severe cyberbullying to feeling excluded from social events, we see these issues on a daily basis.”

He emphasized the “value of in-person social connection and its impact on our psychological well-being” and said that “as more kids spend time interacting virtually and asynchronously, it can have a ripple effect, leading to issues like decreased sleep, an increased focus on image and popularity, and ultimately, mental health concerns.”

By recognizing the impact that smartphones can have on mental health, “we can work towards finding ways to promote healthy relationships with technology and prioritize in-person social connection,” Maxwell said.

‘Guinea Pig Generation’

“Gen Z has unfortunately been a guinea pig generation, and the struggles they’re having are a consequence of the environment they were born into,” Thiagarajan said.

But the “human brain and mind are remarkably malleable, and we’re capable of learning and changing at any age.” Thiagarajan thinks that “being aware of the consequences of smartphones is a first step.”

She advises Gen Zers to “understand that they have been deprived of hours of social interaction and should find ways to make it up.” With practice, in-person interactions will “get easier and pleasurable,” so “start by reaching out to more friends and family, volunteering, or joining an interest group.” 

Advice to Parents

A recent story of a “heroic” seventh grader who managed to steer and stop a school bus after the driver became incapacitated is being attributed to the fact that he was the only child on the bus who wasn’t on a smartphone. 

Instead of gazing at a screen, he had watched the driver over time, so he had the knowledge of how the driver stopped the bus. And because he wasn’t focused on his phone, he became aware that the driver was no longer able to operate the bus and sprang into action.

Thiagarajan urges parents to focus on their children’s social development. “It’s fundamentally important for their mental well-being and capability for navigating the world.”

Parents should “ensure that their children are spending at least a few hours a day engaging in person with family and friends without a smartphone in the middle and building the skills and relationships that will help them through life,” she advised.

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