Smartphones, social media tied to student depression, anxiety

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 7, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 7, 2019 12:12 am

QUINCY -- Even when Aliyah Morrison wants to take a break from the phone, the notifications don't stop.

"Sometimes I respond to them. Sometimes I just ignore them," said the incoming freshman at Quincy High School.

Either way, Aliyah and her friends feel like they struggle to keep up -- not only with the messages but with the glimpses of other people's lives their phones showcase on social media sites like Facebook and Messenger.

"It's really stressful trying to fit in with everybody else," Aliyah admits. "It's pretty hard to keep up with their expectations. You want to live up to that, be like that. You post cute pictures and nice things that make you look like that person."

A growing number of teachers, parents, medical professionals and researchers are convinced that smartphones play a major role in accelerating student anxiety -- a trend so pervasive that a National Education Association newsletter labeled anxiety a "mental health tsunami."

Testing, extracurricular-packed schedules and perpetual stressors like poverty all can weigh on students, but research now points to smartphone-driven social media as one of the biggest drivers of stress.

"A lot of research is showing a link between the smartphones and social media use as well as depression and anxiety, but the link is correlational," said Beth Reinhardt, co-chair of the social and behavioral sciences department at John Wood Community College and an instructor in psychology. "What we don't know yet is if it's causing anxiety and depression or if it's a reaction, a response."

But 70 percent of teens view anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers, according to a February Pew Research Center report, and nearly 60 percent of parents said they worry about the influence of social media on their child's physical and mental health in the American Psychological Association's 2017 Stress in America survey.

"The more things on your plate, the more stress. Keeping up with social media is one more thing to do," Reinhardt said. "If you miss someone's story, accidentally don't comment or post, there could be repercussions. It's definitely a lot of pressure."

Aliyah got a smartphone in eighth grade and said it only took about a month before she was tied into social media and could no longer imagine not having that connection.

"I love my phone," she said.

"They crave their phones so much, that connection they have," said Julie Marshall, a dean at Quincy Junior High School. "They can't do without it, but they don't realize it's stressing them out."

Fear of missing out keeps many young people tied to their phones. Postings by other people can spur jealousy and feelings of being left. "It's just kind of like I wish I could have done that, but that's OK. Maybe next time," Aliyah said.

"They really have trouble looking away, but quite frankly, most adults do too. Even sitting in church and meetings, adults are very, very tied to their phones as well. A lot of adults get stressed by the phone, especially with things like email and social situations and worry about who is doing what," QHS English teacher Brenda Stalder said.

"We've reached a point as a society where I don't think we'll ever be able to put the genie back in the bottle. We're not in a position where we won't have those phones. It has to become a conscious choice by the user to unplug and stay away from those things so he or she can really be in the moment for whatever is going on."

Incoming QHS senior Alex Cookson got her first smartphone in seventh grade and admits it sometimes can be a distraction. Most of the time, though, she keeps the phone in her pocket with the ringer off to minimize the interruptions from Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.

"It's not like I have to keep up with them, but certain people I have to answer -- family, a few friends," she said.

Alex said she doesn't stress about the phone, but "I've seen some kids get so stressed when they don't have their phones," she said.

Educators are quick to point out positive uses for smartphones in the classroom as a resource and a tool for students.

"We used to teach people information. Now we have to teach people to manage information because all the information they need is in their hand," Stalder said. "You have to tell what is true from what is false. It's all about teaching people to recognize it all can be manipulated. It's a lesson all of us have to learn, be it 14 or 40, that people don't always paint an accurate picture and that can cause anxiety and jealousy."

Reinhardt reports improvements in phone use in the classroom, but warns it remains a "double-edged sword" for students as a distraction and source of anxiety.

"They seem to be able to negotiate that use between when it's relevant in the classroom versus when it's inappropriate or distracting," Reinhardt said.

Smartphone use plays into classroom discussions about depression and anxiety and the social psychology tied to how people choose their profile photos for online sites.

"If you post something and get a like, a comment, all the pleasure centers in the brain light up. We want more of it. There's a pull to keep doing it," Reinhardt said. "It's more than just being accepted or fitting in. It's that natural ‘I got a little reward. I want more.' It's very reinforcing."

Limiting phone time can help manage stress.

"Two hours a day is sort of the magic number," said Reinhardt, who also suggests limiting phone use for around an hour before bedtime and making time for face-to-face connections away from the phone.

Stalder sees her students becoming "wiser" in their media consumption, but she still worries about its impact.

"My major concerns are socially just for the kids comparing themselves to unrealistic images and people's unrealistic lives. I think they feel they're not measuring up," she said. "My other major social concern is over the access of following people out of relationships. It's harder to let go, to end bad relationships sometimes if you always see what other people are doing."


The Associated Press contributed to this report.