January is “Debating Digital Detox” month on the Business and Society blog. An increasing number of people are choosing to give up their electronic devices in January, as a type of new year's resolution. We are exploring why people feel the need to do this - why we see our relationship with digital technology so negatively. Are we so addicted that we need a period to ‘cleanse’ ourselves?
David Ellis and Brit Davidson say no. Here they explain why smartphones are not bad for us. Their research found that, in fact, the concern and anxiety that people feel about their smartphone use is what affects our mental health.
Smartphones have become an essential part of daily life. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of research pointing towards supposed negative effects of smartphone use, with some even claiming that the more time you spend using your smartphone, the worse your mental health.
However, many of the studies that suggest negative links to smartphone use are low quality, often failing to measure how people actually use their devices. When our team directly measured the time that people spent on their smartphones each day for our latest research, we found no strong links between smartphone use and increased mental health symptoms.
Our team conducted two studies that directly measured the time people spent on their smartphones each day for a week to understand the relationship with mental health. Participants either installed an app or provided data from Apple Screen Time that directly logged every interaction, and how long they used their device. The first study recruited 46 android users and the second 199 iPhone users.
We found that, on average, people spent around four hours a day on their smartphones, picking them up between 85 and 133 times. However, the amount of use did not predict a person’s anxiety, depression, or stress levels when asked to rate their symptoms on clinical questionnaires.
We also considered whether our findings would change if smartphone use was measured differently. As is common in the majority of existing research, we asked people to fill in rating scales that asked them how problematic they believed their smartphone use to be. Alongside this, we also asked people to estimate how much time they spent on their phone each day.
We found across both studies that such “problematic use scales” produced larger associations with mental health symptoms than estimates or direct logs of smartphone use. In some cases, the strength of the relationship between usage and mental health symptoms was four times higher than what we found when compared to direct logs of use.
This suggests it’s important to consider actual device use separately from people’s concerns and worries about technology. This is because general device use doesn’t show any noteworthy relationships with mental health – while people’s concerns and worries about their smartphone use does. In future, longer term studies should be conducted using newly developed apps to see how mental health and smartphone use changes over time.
So many academics are interested in this topic that more than 900 rating scales have been developed to try and better understand people’s relationship with their technology. However, this results in the “many voices” problem, where pressure to publish can lead to an abundance of low-quality work that is quick and easy to conduct and appears impactful.
The ultimate consequence of this has been the definition of new “technology use disorders”. For example, some are going as far to argue for a consensus on the existence of gaming disorder, despite the fact that the majority of scientists do not agree that the evidence is of high enough quality for this. Defining a disorder prematurely is unethical, as those diagnosed may undergo unnecessary stigma, treatments, lifestyle changes and an altered sense of self.
Other studies also continue to make grand claims about the impact of technology, and generally recommend limiting use, when time spent on technology has not actually been measured. What’s more, these studies often do not comply with open science practices, including the sharing of data and analysis procedures.
One such study concluded that over 80% of anxiety symptoms could be explained by someone’s gaming addiction scores. However, these claims have now been withdrawn due to analysis error following accusations of data fabrication.
These revelations are rarely reported by the mainstream media and further serve to divert attention away from genuine digital harms – including misinformation, cyberbullying, fraud, and unequal access to technology.
While we can now measure smartphone use at a general level, this still doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, talking to your best friend on the phone is very different to browsing Facebook or watching a YouTube video. This makes previous research look even more limited, as claiming general smartphone use as solely negative or positive oversimplifies the complexities of behaviour.
Research has largely favoured studying problematic use, and there is an inherent lack of basic work on describing technology use as a core part of everyday life. This will be essential before we are better able to understand or mitigate harm.
Claims suggesting that smartphones are ruining a generation are incorrect yet remain impactful. This leads people to believe that general smartphone use is linked to poor mental health, and these concerns are common in adolescents.
As our research confirms, even if specific worries in relation to mobile technology are widespread, reducing general smartphone use – or pausing use completely – is unlikely to have mental health benefits. Instead, it appears more important to explore how and why people worry about their technology use, alongside how this may impact their mental wellbeing. However, it’s becoming increasingly important to study technology use directly if we want to understand how it impacts people and society.