Studies show teens are more likely to show signs of depression if they are addicted to their cell phone. Here are the signs to look out for and how parents can help.

By Kristi Pahr
October 30, 2019

Cell phones are a vital part of the teenage social landscape. From keeping up with friends on Snapchat and group messaging to requirements to use school-related apps and websites, teens can't seem to get a break from their devices. But what happens when casual phone use becomes less casual?

Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2)

Smartphone addiction, which can also be thought of as a fear of being without a connection to the Internet or a cellular service, has been connected to many mental health concerns. But despite a well-known link between phone addiction and depression, anxiety, and loneliness, until recently it's been a chicken and egg problem: Do phones cause these symptoms, or are people with these symptoms more likely to become dependent on their phones?

new study from researchers at the University of Arizona explored the connection between smartphone use and mental health with a group of 18 to 20-year-olds. This age group, termed "older adolescents" by researchers, is important because they are among the first to have grown up with smart technology readily available (the first iPhone wasn't released until 2007).

When conducting the study, the research team focused on dependence, or a person's psychological reliance on the device, not general usage. Subjects answered questions such as "I panic when I can't use my smartphone," as well as questions designed to measure loneliness and depression on a four-point scale. From that, researchers were able to determine that phone addiction is indeed a predictor for depressive symptoms.

"The main takeaway is that smartphone dependency directly predicts later depressive symptoms," said Matthew Lapierre, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, in a press release for the study. "There's an issue where people are entirely too reliant on the device, in terms of feeling anxious if they don't have it accessible, and they're using it to the detriment of their day-to-day life."

But while the risks device addiction pose for teens is becoming more clear, it can be difficult for parents to determine if their child is engaging in casual phone use or has developed a psychological dependence on their phone. Monique Hicks, CAPSW and educational consultant, suggest parents watch for these warning signs that your child's phone use has moved beyond casual into a more problematic dynamic:

Signs of Phone Addiction

  • Switching between multiple devices and programs (social networking, texting, gaming, etc.)
  • Extreme reactions when separated from their device
  • Impatience, irritability, restlessness, inability to focus in school when separated from their phone
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Increased social challenges

How Parents Can Help

While taking devices away completely may be tempting, monitoring and adapting usage might be a better option. Both Google/Android and iPhone platforms provide options to help families balance phone usage. Google Digital Wellness and Screen Time for iPhone show realtime data for device usage and provide tools for limiting phone use. Similarly, Android Family Link allows parents to remotely monitor phone and app usage, set screen-time limits, and even lock devices for set amounts of time.

Beyond physical restriction, providing a good example of healthy phone usage is important. Parents should be mindful of the amount of time we spend on our own phones and be a role model for moderation. If our phones are in our hands every spare moment, our kids will follow suit. Spending time together, one on one without the distraction of screens is also important in helping kids foster healthy relationships with tech. Encouraging creative outlets and hands-on activities is an integral part of maintaining a healthy balance.

The Bottom Line

If you feel like your child might have a phone addiction or is showing signs of depression or anxiety, reach out to your healthcare or mental healthcare provider for suggestions on how to help them learn healthy coping strategies.

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