• Study links smartphone use with depression in teens

    By: Jim Morelli

    Updated:

    HOLLISTON, Mass. - Juliana Troland is a high school freshman in Holliston. Like many teens, she's pretty attached to her cell phone. "You can't communicate with people outside of school," Troland said of her iPhone. "It's like the only way to communicate." 

    Most of the time, that communication has nothing to do with actually talking on the phone, Troland said, as she, like most teens, mainly stays in touch with peers via text messaging. 

    But new research suggests excessive cell phone use by teens may be contributing to a mental health crisis in that age group.

    "What we know is that if a kid has a cell phone there seems to be a greater association with the likelihood for depression," said Dr. Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital's Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. 

    But, Schlozman says a million-dollar question remains regarding those studies: "Would a depressed kid be more likely to own a cell phone. Or does ownership of the cell phone lead to a greater likelihood of depression?"

    If cell phones do contribute to teen depression - as some studies suggest - what’s the link? 

    Schlozman says it has to do with what passes for communication when using these devices. "We are wired to understand what each other are saying through these very nuanced communications," said Schlozman. "Eyebrows going up or down. Blinking. Changes in facial expression."

    Those nuances are especially lost when communication comes in the form of text messaging. Schlozman says our brains are simply not wired to process texts in the same way we have evolved to process speech. And yet, Schlozman said, teenagers engaging in text messaging are "still pretty sure they are having a real, in-depth conversation."

    But some research suggests lack of face-to-face communication can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science found mental health issues are less likely in teens who participate in activities which require socializing - such as clubs or sports. 

    Text messaging and interacting on social media can also lead to anxiety in teens because of the permanence of the medium. 

    "So you might say something to a friend in anger. Wish you could take it back two and a half seconds after you said it," Schlozman said. "And kids are more impulsive than adults. So they're more likely to send those texts or e-mails or Instagrams or Snapchats... and they can't take it back."  

    The resulting anxiety from those regretted communications can lead to depressive symptoms. 

    Reducing cell phone dependence in teens can be challenging. "It's like an umbilical cord," said Shelly Sullivan, mother of a teen daughter. "If you cut it. I don't want to see what's going to happen." 

    And cell phones do serve a useful function, by helping parents and teens stay in touch. But Schlozman says setting limits on cell phone use is important - and the rules should be laid down early on, he said - even before the phone is purchased. 

    One popular (and relatively easy) restriction for families to adopt: prohibit cell phone use at the dinner table. The added benefit is that gathering around an evening meal makes for an ideal time to connect face-to-face.  

    Juliana Troland used to be so dependent on her cell phone that she kept it by her bed - even while sleeping. That led to constant interruptions at night when social media messages came beeping through. 

    She noticed it was affecting her schoolwork because she was tired during the day. So now, she leaves her phone in the kitchen before turning in. 

    "It improves my focusing... I can pay attention for a longer period of time and I can get more work done at school." 

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