Smartphones and stress: A complicated relationship


It’s almost silly to call smartphones popular – a better word might be “ubiquitous.”

People use phones to check email, to browse social media sites, shop, take photos and find out how to get places – talking seems to be the last thing smartphone users do on the phone.

Teenagers, most of whom came of age when smartphones became readily available, have taken to the devices like fish to water. A 2015 Pew Research poll on how teens use social media found 92 percent of teens reported going online daily. Almost three-quarters of the teens Pew surveyed reported having – or were able to access – a smartphone; only 12 percent reported they had no cellphone at all.

Naturally, this has raised concerns, largely because several recent studies claim to have found links between poor academic performance, depression, anxiety and heavy use of smartphones and social media. But the devices themselves may not be responsible.

High use may mean low GPA and stress

A study conducted in 2014 at Kent State University in Ohio took a look at 500 Kent undergraduates. Researchers asked the students about how much confidence they had in their academic abilities and study habits. They also noted the students’ GPA, class standing and gender.

The results found heavy cellphone use resulted in lower academic performance. Speaking to Kent State’s news service, study co-author Andrew Lepp, Ph.D., said that “the student who used the smartphone more on a daily basis had a significantly lower college GPA than a similar student who used the phone less.” Researchers also noticed heavy smartphone use seemed to cause anxiety, depression and even a lack of physical fitness.

Smartphone stress isn’t always restricted to teens – a study conducted by researchers from the University of Worcester in the United Kingdom found personal smartphone use increased stress in students and professionals alike.

Motivations, not devices, may be responsible

Additional research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) also showed a relationship between heavy device use, depression and anxiety. However, the results suggest it’s not the devices themselves that cause depression and anxiety, but rather the motivations that send people online.

UI’s researchers surveyed over 300 UI students with questionnaires. The students were asked about their mental health, their motivations for turning on their devices and the amount of time they spent on their devices and the internet.

The results, published in the May 2016 edition of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found the students who described themselves as having addictive behaviors toward smartphones and the internet had much higher rates of depression than the students who said they used their devices as a way to escape from boredom. An additional study by the same researchers found having a smartphone during stressful situations seemed to have a calming effect for their subjects.

The cost of caring

In 2013, Pew Research interviewed 1,801 adults about how much stress they had in their lives. Pew found people who used the internet and social media more frequently did not have higher levels of stress overall. However, the researchers found social media increases the awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives. Calling it “the cost of caring,” Pew discovered that awareness was tied into higher stress levels, particularly for women.

Although stress can be a motivating force, too much can be damaging to a teen’s academic performance and daily life. White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for boys aged 12 to 17. Our program both educates and provides a structured environment for boys coping with mental disorders, substance abuse and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a  20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.

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