Are Smartphones Making Depression Worse?

September 22, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Close up of a person using  a smartphone
Photo credit: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The addictive gadgets are no match for real human interaction.

There are many upsides to being in the midst of a technological era — our smartphones enable us to stay connected with friends and family at anytime, and we can navigate the web to explore anything from Hawking radiation to memes of Kim Kardashian’s crying face. However, as entertaining and useful as smartphones can be, the gadgets may worsen depression for those struggling with the illness.

Many depressed people turn to their smartphones for relief from their sadness. Can you blame them? Getting lost in a game of Candy Crush or browsing through Instagram to look at pictures of cute puppies is a refreshing break from the real world for anyone. But real-life human interaction helps lift people out of their depressive states rather than simply providing temporary relief.

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A team of researchers, including Prabu David, the dean of the University of Michigan’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, found that those who substitute electronic interaction for real-life human communication found little, if any, lasting satisfaction. In a press release, David said that using a mobile phone for temporary relief of negative emotions could actually worsen psychological conditions and spiral into unregulated and problematic use of smartphones.

"The research bears out that despite all the advances we've made, there is still a place for meaningful, face-to-face interaction," said David. "The mobile phone can do a range of things that simulate human interaction. It seduces us into believing it's real, but the fact remains it's still synthetic.”

The research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, looked at two different pathways for habitual use of smartphones: to pass the time and entertain, or to alleviate feelings of depression by seeking out others. Those who use their phones to escape negative feelings are actually doing it as a sort of cry for help — but instead of trying to do so face-to-face, they’re using their phones as a middleman.

Another study from the psychology department at Connecticut College determined that people who frequently use their smartphones also have higher levels of social anxiety. Those who use smartphones as their main method of interaction seek out digital communication as a less socially stressful method of interacting. Once these habits are formed, it’s much harder to break free of them since face-to-face interaction will only seem more daunting than before.

While smartphones might seem like an easy way to reach out to others and relieve symptoms of depression, they, in fact, worsen the condition. Using a smartphone in moderation can benefit people in a number of ways— entertainment, communication, and educational purposes. But, for those who are struggling with depression, the best remedy is to make direct contact with people, as daunting as that may seem. direct is to call up your friends and get out of the house.

"If you have a chance to see someone face-to-face, take it," David said. "Life is short.”

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