Can the Smartphone Cause Depression?

smartphone use

Is there a link between smartphone use and the rise in teen depression?

This is question that seems to pop up on the internet rather frequently and it must leave some parents wondering if it is just scaremongering to attract attention or is there really a link between depression and smartphones?

Well, if you’re still reading this the attention bit worked because you are reading this! But keep reading and hopefully we will make things a little clearer as to how smartphones have been linked to depression.

I like to make things clear so lets get the first point out of the way. At the time of writing this post medical experts claim that research into the area of smartphones and depression is still in its infancy and there is simply not enough hard evidence available yet to give a balanced answer to this question.

Fair enough, but that still has not stopped the flow of articles linking the smartphone to depression and so lets consider some of their claims.

Depression has Increased with Smartphone Ownership

Research shows smartphone sales have steadily risen since their first introduction in 2007 (statista). This rise in smartphone ownership coincides with the rise is teen mental health issues and so it appears some dots have been joined linking smartphone to that rise in teen depression. However, a closer analysis of technology ownership and improvements during the same period of time shows:

  • Tablet sales also increased
  • Internet connections improved
  • The number of homes with wireless networks increased
  • The number of available wireless hotspots increased improving accessibility
  • The number of houses with computers and internet connections increased
  • Speed of networks have increased meaning we spend less time waiting for our connection to work.

All of the above improve our opportunity to get stuck in front of and electronic screen and surf the internet. Admittedly the smartphone does allow users the convenience to connect anywhere, anytime, but what you can access on a smartphone you can access on multiple devices so it may not all be down to just the smartphone. Yes, the smartphone can be a very disruptive influence on our concentration, but it is also one of many devices that teens have access too and if one stops working they simply pick up another device to continue their connection.

Connectivity Link

Improvements to internet connectivity, such as wireless hotspots and the rapid pace of technology development are central issues in the rise of the smartphone.  The smartphone now packs more technology into its slim case than the Apollo 12 space ship, its a pocket powerhouse, but if we took away the internet connection would it still be so popular? Maybe not quite so much and that highlights another possible reason why the smartphone is linked to depression, its sheer power and portability ensures we are always connected. Our minds rarely get any downtime from the constant chatter and overwhelming nature of the internet. If its difficult for adults to control, its even worse for a young developing mind.

Some experts believe the internet is responsible for the rise in teens mental health issues, but again research is limited in this area and the question of whether people become depressed using the internet or whether people become addicted to internet because they are depressed is still being researched and debated.

Experts link Internet to Depression

In Dr. Kimberly Young’s, book Internet Addiction (p. 38) she quoted:

studies suggest that people with psychological problems and social difficulties appear to be drawn to online social interaction. With regard to depression, for example, a national survey of adolescents found that adolescents who reported depressive symptoms were more likely than their nondepressed counterparts to talk with strangers online, use the Internet most frequently for interpersonal communication, and be more self-disclosive online (Ybarra, Alexander, & Mitchell, 2005). 

Its important to understand that depression is an extremely complicated illness that can be caused by a number of different issues. For teens it is a relatively new area of mental health because until the 1980s, psychiatrists didn’t think teenage brains were developed enough for such an adult affliction. Experts thought teen mood disorders were part of normal human development and until 1987 there was no safe effective medication available.

Internet Addiction and Depression Link to Brain Structure

The impact of depression is not to be underestimated and medical researchers have noted differences in the brains of people who have a clinical depression compared to those who do not.  The hippocampus,, which is a small part of the brain for storage of memories, appears to be smaller in some people with a history of depression than in those who’ve never been depressed.

The smaller hippocampus has fewer serotonin receptors, which are used to transmit messages between nerve cells. Its believed that low serotonin levels can lead to depression. Interestingly, excessive screentime can lead to the disruption dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, possibly leading to a more depressed state.

Scientists are not sure why the hippocampus may be smaller in some people with depression, It is possible that some depressed people are simply born with a smaller hippocampus but it likely that no single brain structure or pathway fully accounts for clinical depression.

This is interesting because research into excessive screentime has shown that it can also mess with the structure of the brain. Research has shown shrinkage or loss of tissue volume in gray matter areas e.g. the processing bit. This affects the frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, planning, prioritizing, organizing, e.g. the bit where you get things done.

According to the latest research on the impact of the internet on our metal health experts have compared internet addiction to pathological gambling, eg behaviour rather than substance addiction. With 9 out of every 10 teenagers in Australia having use of a mobile phone on a daily basis, most with internet connection, its not hard to see why the smartphone is so closely linked to teen mental health issues.

While we wait for medical research to give us some answers its worth noting that what we consume on the internet often impacts on our moods. Teens often turn to the internet to escape an issue and the smartphone is a convenient tool to access that escape route.

So it appears one of the main issues with the smartphone is its ability to connect to the internet anywhere, anytime. Content accessed via the internet can influence our moods or thought patterns, which in turn can lead to some unhealthy mental health habits. As access to technology becomes even easier its not a problem that is likely to go away any time soon.

What should parents do

When Your teen is demanding a smartphone? Not an easy situation to deal with which is why we have developed some help sheets to help you set this up. Most teens will cite the need for a phone “but all my mates have one” and its the only way I can keep in touch with them? For me its about negotiation and responsibility:

  • they want a phone it costs, get them to contribute. Research shows those who contribute (or pay the full cost) for the smartphone are the most frugal users so hopefully they won’t use the internet so much
  • if they want use of a mobile, they come with conditions of use. Set up an agreement of use and include the family in this. Check our resources page for more information.
  • monitor their use through an app placed on the phone before they receive it. Again negotiate and agree how to monitor.
  • remove all electronic equipment from the bedrooms (yes all bedrooms, got to have a fair deal). parents would be amazed by the amount of online bullying that goes on when they go to bed.

In short the smartphone increases our ability to communicate and access the internet. Constant access to material on the internet has been linked to teen mental health issues including depression. There is no conclusive research that links the smartphone to depression but the connectivity the smartphone allows is the the bit that connects all the dots and internet consumption is the driver.

Nic Jay


Internet Addiction by Dr. Kimberley Young

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