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Published on August 16, 2018

depressed teen with her phone

Is Your Phone to Blame for Depression or Anxiety?

Smartphones – what would we do without them? Sometimes that small rectangular box seems like a part of our person and we feel at loose ends without it.

In fact, says Wallace Jackmon, PhD, LCSW-PIP, Avera Medical Group psychologist, smartphones and their apps can become an addiction that leads to anxiety and depression.

Jackmon has been studying the link between smartphone apps and a higher risk of anxiety and depression for the past several years.

“There’s data to support a correlation between anxiety and depression and accessing certain social media sites,” he says. He was recently invited to speak on the topic at the National Conference of the National Association of Social Workers 2018 in Washington D.C.

Much More Than Feeling Down

Depression is more than sadness. Common symptoms include feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness or helplessness; loss of interest in things you used to enjoy; fatigue; difficulty concentrating; sleep problems; loss of appetite or overeating; restlessness and irritability; thoughts of suicide; and physical symptoms such as headaches.

Anxiety includes worry about a number of events or activities with difficulty controlling the worry, including but not limited to fatigue, irritability, restlessness, sleep disturbance and muscle tension.

Smartphone apps can be addictive because of “intermittent reinforcement,” similar to gambling in a casino. In other words, you get continual feedback and intermittent rewards, and you want more.

“There’s an end to a book or a movie, but social media never ends. That hardwires the brain that ‘I want to keep using it…and get to the end of it,’” Jackmon said, listing apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit.

Consuming Hours Every Day

The average Facebook user spends more than 55 minutes a day on the app. With 1.8 billion users worldwide, that means some people are spending a few minutes while others are spending hours. “And that’s just Facebook alone,” Jackmon added.

On Facebook, one can easily compare their own lives to others who seem to be happier. If negative behaviors like bullying take place, that’s even more insidious.

Smartphones can interrupt sleep patterns, work and relationships. “Research shows that 87 percent of teens sleep with their phones,” Jackmon said. If they are staying up late, or if they wake up to see every message or notification, they are not getting adequate sleep, which in itself can lead to depression and/or anxiety.

“If you’ve seen two people eating together at a restaurant, and one or both of them is looking at their phone instead of talking to each other, that’s a phenomenon known as phubbing,” a mash-up of the words phone and snubbing, he said.

Fear of missing out – FOMO – is another arm of the addiction.

“Especially with apps like Snapchat, where the posts appear and are gone. Or like Twitter, when the notifications keep coming fast, and you feel like you’re in contact with people you normally wouldn’t be – like a famous actor or professional football player,” Jackmon said.

Continually getting news updates can make you feel personally involved in a national or world crisis and keep you focused on bad news, creating fear and uncertainty of the unknown.

How do you know when it’s a problem? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it interfere with your thinking, sleep or behavioral patterns?
  • Does it interfere with your interpersonal relationships?
  • Does it keep you from being productive at work or in the classroom?

“If so, it could be creeping into the addiction field,” Jackmon said.

The solution is easy to identify, but not so easy to do. “Limit your phone time, and make sure your children have limits,” Jackmon said. Consider a new rule, such as no one uses their phone at the dinner table.

“It’s about being more aware and mindful of how your phone might be interfering in your life,” Jackmon said. Most of us aren’t able to entirely disconnect from our phones, but ask yourself, “Can you cut back?”

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