Adolescents’ Phone Use and Mental Health Concerns
Written by Kelly Mannion, graduate member of the Family Health Lab and Sarah Domoff, PhD

There has been increased debate regarding how screen media may or may not be harmful for adolescents. Although research is fairly consistent about how smartphone use interferes with adolescents’ sleep (see Domoff, Borgen, Foley, & Maffett, 2019 for a review on smartphone use and adolescents’ physical health), evidence is quite mixed regarding whether smartphones contribute to poorer mental health. A major limitation of prior research is that it has relied on adolescents making estimates of their phone use. Jensen and colleagues (2019) address this limitation.

Jensen et al. (2019) examined the mobile phone use and mental health symptoms of 388 adolescents via self-report and ecological momentary assessment (EMA). EMA consists of individuals reporting their own phone usage and mental health symptoms live, in real time, as opposed to a self-report assessment completed later (and after usage). Results indicated that adolescents’ phone use was not associated with poorer mental health, regardless of the amount of time spent on the phone. These results suggest that simply using smartphones may not be harming adolescents’ mental health. Indeed, our research has suggested that it is how an adolescent uses his or her phone that matters for various outcomes, such as academic performance (see Domoff, Foley, & Ferkel, 2019). If you are interested in learning more about how smartphones may impact youth at school, click here.

What parents and clinicians should do to help youth use phones in healthier ways:

  • Communicate openly about the risks and benefits of mobile device use.
  • Ask youth about who they follow and the content they enjoy viewing. Importantly, make sure youth know what they should do if they encounter content that upsets them or causes stress or worry.
  • Risks appear to be related to the content that youth are exposed to, as well as the context of use. For example, keeping youth off phones prior to bedtime (and keeping phones out of the bedroom) has the potential to reduce interference with sleep.
  • Talk to a psychologist if you are concerned about your child’s smartphone use and how it may be affecting their functioning.
  • Consider using a family media agreement or cellphone contract to help set limits and support healthy device use. Here are some great examples, available for download: Common Sense Media and Healthy Children’s Family Media Plan

Click here to read the article.

Jensen, M., George, M. J., Russell, M. R., & Odgers, C. L. (2019). Young adolescents’ digital technology use and mental health symptoms: Little evidence of longitudinal or daily linkages. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(6), 1416-1433.