Young people who are hooked on their smartphones may be at an increased risk for depression and loneliness.

A growing body of research has identified a link between smartphone dependency and symptoms of depression and loneliness. However, it's been unclear whether reliance on smartphones precedes those symptoms, or whether the reverse is true: that depressed or lonely people are more likely to become dependent on their phones.

In a study of 346 older adolescents, ages 18-20, researcher Matthew Lapierre and his collaborators at the University of Arizona found that smartphone dependency predicts higher reports of depressive symptoms and loneliness, rather than the other way around.

"The main takeaway is that smartphone dependency directly predicts later depressive symptoms," said Lapierre, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "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."

Understanding the direction of the relationship between smartphone dependency and poor psychological outcomes is critical for knowing how best to address the problem, said communication master's student Pengfei Zhao, who co-authored the study with Lapierre and communication doctoral student Benjamin Custer.

"If depression and loneliness lead to smartphone dependency, we could reduce dependency by adjusting people's mental health," Zhao said. "But if smartphone dependency (precedes depression and loneliness), which is what we found, we can reduce smartphone dependency to maintain or improve wellbeing."

Given the potential negative effects of smartphone dependency, it may be worth it for people to evaluate their relationship with their devices and self-impose boundaries if necessary, the researchers said.

"When people feel stressed, they should use other healthy approaches to cope, like talking to a close friend to get support or doing some exercises or meditation," Zhao said.


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