Newswise — There’s no denying that people are spending more time with screens, whether a smartphone or other digital device or a TV.  A 2016 Nielsen report found that Americans spent over 10 hours a day in front of some kind of screen; by mid-2017 that number had already grown by a half-hour per day. 

Overuse of these technologies can have serious downsides. In recognition of May as Mental Health Month, we spoke to a California State University expert to learn more about how compulsive smartphone use — which accounts for the uptick in usage for most people — can hurt mental well-being.

Results from a recent survey of two groups of undergraduates totaling 211 students showed that those who used their phone the most reported significantly higher loneliness, anxiety and depression compared to those who used their phone the least. The researchers, Erik Peper, Ph.D., and Richard Harvey, Ph.D., professors at the Institute for Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University, say these are symptoms of digital addiction.

Drs. Peper and Harvey observed that many students, both in and out of class, often have their heads down, clicking and scrolling on their phones, instead of engaging with people. “For mental health, we need that human communication, because then we learn to modulate our moods,” says Peper, who is also president of the Biofeedback Federation of Europe


He explains that most forms of digital communication, such as text messaging or email, are asynchronous, meaning information is transmitted intermittently, rather than in a steady, real-time stream. 

With this type of communication, “you can’t see who you are communicating with so you’re not aware of the emotional impact of your speech,” Peper notes, nor can you pick up on non-verbal cues like body language or vocal intonation. That’s why text messages can be easily misinterpreted. What’s more, they tend to be more surface-level, resulting in less meaningful conversations.

Are You in a "Digital Bubble”?

Over the more than three decades he’s spent at San Francisco State, Peper says he has seen a clear change in students. Before the rise of smartphones, most would make eye contact or speak to one another while walking down the hallway. Today, he’s more likely to see students leaning against a wall while on a tablet, computer or phone. 

“They’re in their own digital bubbles,” he says, adding that if we don’t create intimacy through deep communication with others feelings of isolation and depression become more likely.

But shallow, unsatisfying communication isn’t the only way digital devices can affect mental well-being. Peper and Harvey have also conducted research about the ways in which we position our bodies affect our mood and energy. “If you are depressed and feel more hopeless, you tend to adopt the posture of slouching,” Peper notes. Needless to say, a lot of us tend to slouch or hunch when peering into a screen.

“If you have any history of depression, hopelessness, anxiety or fear, when you put your body in this collapsed position, it evokes those same states,” he says. Luckily, when you correct your posture, “you will feel less depressed, statistically,” even if you change nothing else.

Devices also make it more difficult to fall asleep, and “disturbed sleep is a major contributing factor to mental illness and ill health,” he adds. One reason for this is the blue light emitted by screens. 

But the type of content we engage with right before going to bed can also be stimulating — and therefore likely to  disturb our shut-eye. “On social media, you tend to be more emotionally activated, responding back and forth, and that keeps you more awake. Therefore, you have even less sleep,” he says, adding that it’s not a coincidence that many of the students he sees are chronically sleep-deprived. 

It almost goes without saying that the more time you spend consuming media, digital or otherwise, the less time you’re spending staying active. “The best treatment for anti-depression is movement and exercise,” Peper says simply.  

So how do you know if you have a smartphone dependency? “Put your phone away and for the next two days, don’t use it,” he suggests. If you become frantic and find it difficult or impossible to go without checking social media, texts and email, you may have a problem.


Six Ways to Break Your Screen Obsession

San Francisco State professor Dr. Erik Peper offers a few simple tips to finding a healthy balance 
between time with a device and real life.
  1. Connect with people IRL. To reduce loneliness, start reaching out and connecting with others. 
  2. Exercise. Do more physical activity; go for walks with others to help form mind-body social connections.
  3. Sit up straight. Peper says that posture is critical to your mood, so when you’re using your device, be aware of your body position. 
  4. Proactively limit interruptions. Turn off push notifications on your mobile apps. Schedule time to look and respond to email and social media.
  5. Be present. Make an active choice to be present with friends and family.
  6. Make smartphone avoidance a game. At a social gathering, have friends place their phones in the middle of the table to see who “loses” by picking up their phone first.