Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 27

Early-life smartphone use tied to poorer mental health in Gen Z

May 18, 2023 – America’s fascination and dependence on smartphones seems to know no end – and if you think it’s common for kids to be staring at their screens as much as adults do, you’re right. Several studies have found that more kids are using smartphones and similar digital devices (like tablets) and at younger ages.

A 2020 Pew Research Center report found that more than a third of the 1,600 parents interviewed said their child began using a smartphone before the age of 5, and a quarter said their child’s smartphone engagement began between ages 5 and 8. And a 2019 survey by Common Sense Media found that over half of U.S. kids have their own smartphone by the time they’re 11.

But is this growing use of smartphones good for kids’ mental health? A new report by Sapien Labs, published this week, used global data from 27,969 Generation Z young adults (ages 18-24) to focus on the possible relationship between childhood smartphone use and current mental health. After all, this is “the first generation who went through adolescence with this technology,” explains Tara Thiagarajan, PhD, founder and chief scientist at Sapien Labs.

The report found that mental well-being “consistently improved with older age of first ownership of a smartphone or tablet, with a steeper change in females, compared to males.” In fact, the percentage of females with mental health challenges decreased from 74% for those who received their first smartphone at age 6 to 46% for those who received it at age 18. In males, the percentage dropped from 42% who received their first smartphone at age 6 to 36% who received it at age 18.

“The earlier you got your smartphone as a child, the more likely you are to have worse mental well-being as an adult,” Thiagarajan said. Thiagarajan said her organization was motivated to conduct the study because they “track the evolving mental well-being of the world with the view towards understanding what is driving the current decline of mental well-being in younger generations.”

Their goals are “to uncover the root causes so that we can identify appropriate preventative strategies that can reverse the trend.” She noted that the “trajectory of the decline we’re seeing [in mental health] tracks the advent of smartphones, and there is quite a bit of literature linking social media and the smartphone to negative outcomes, so it was high on the list of potential root causes to explore.”

She explained that Sapien Labs’ Global Mind Project is an “ongoing survey of global mental well-being, along with various lifestyle and life experience factors.” It “acquires data using an assessment that spans 47 elements covering a wide range of symptoms and mental capabilities on a life impact scale that are combined to provide an aggregate score.”

One of the categories examined is Social Self – a “measure of how we view ourselves and relate to others.” It is one of six parts of mental function, and it improved most dramatically with the older age of first smartphone ownership in young men and young women. “For females, other dimensions such as mood and outlook and adaptability and resilience also improved steeply” in those who got their first smartphone at older ages. Notably, problems with suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression toward others, a sense of being detached from reality, and hallucinations “declined most steeply and significantly” with older age of first smartphone ownership for females, and for males as well, but to a lesser degree.

Katerina Voci, a 17-year-old senior at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, NJ, has had mental health challenges all of her life – particularly anxiety and depression. “I’ve been working through them, and I’m very proud of the progress I’ve made,” she said.

Although she didn’t start using smartphones in early childhood – she didn’t get her first one until eighth grade – she believes that smartphone use may have worsened her mental health issues since then. “It depended on what sort of media I used,” she said. “Social media was the biggest aspect of my smartphone use.”