Teen Depression and Cell Phone Use – Is There a Connection?

There’s no doubt there has been a frightening increase in depression and suicides in recent years, particularly among teenage girls. According to the CDC, between 2010 and 2015, suicide among girls increased by 65% and severe depression increased by 58%. This is truly alarming. Changes just don’t happen that quickly without a major change in social conditions or behavior. What could be one contributing factor that might have brought about such a rapid and negative change? The cell phone.

Although “smartphones” that could do more than just make phone calls existed in the 1990s, it wasn’t until 2007, when Apple released the iPhone with its internet capabilities, that cell phone ownership among adults and teens became almost universal.

But how could a cell phone explain this dramatic and negative impact? Researchers are still trying to explain the many factors that could cause such a jump, but there’s clearly a correlation.

Let’s look at the teen issue.  The CDC found that 48% of teens who spent 5+ hours per day on their phones thought about suicide, compared to 28% of those who spent one hour per day on their phones. The question is: Do more vulnerable teens use cell phones more, or do cell phones cause teens to be more vulnerable? The answer could be both.

Cell phones are literally at our fingertips and can provide us with virtually any information or stimulation that we desire at any time. Some teens and adults use their phones as an escape—when pressure builds, they turn to their phones for solace. But this could actually be exacerbating the problem by preventing them from developing healthy coping mechanisms or problem-solving skills.

Social media is another problem. While it may seem that social media is making “social connections,” very little true human interaction is taking place. Teens often compare themselves negatively to the whitewashed lives of the people they see online. They create posts looking for “likes,” and when they don’t get enough, they can experience lower feelings of self-worth. Even more dangerous is the increased incidence of cyber-bullying.

If you think your cell phone addiction is contributing to your depression, here are a few simple steps to take:

  1. Have mandatory times every day when you unplug.  Use this time to read a book, call a friend, or get out and take a walk without checking for updates.  
  2. If you are part of a family, have a no cell phone rule at the dinner table.  This will help each member of your family reconnect and place importance on real-world interactions.
  3. Do not run to check your cell phone first thing in the morning.  Instead, take time to connect with your day through deep breaths, meditation, a walk outside, and/or sitting for breakfast with your family, your partner, a newspaper or pet.  

While the phone itself may be innocuous, its applications can both worsen problems for already depressed or anxious teens and create problems, through lower self-esteem and bullying, in teens who might not otherwise have developed them.

As a therapist in NYC, I encourage parents to talk with their children about cell phone use and help them see where it can help them and also where it can harm them. This may begin to turn back the tide of depression.


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