College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

Cellphone addiction linked to depression and anxiety

Link is revealed in college-age students, according to study

Alejandro Lleras

A new study from the University of Illinois found that addiction to—but not simply use of—mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students.

Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras said his study, which was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, revealed that people who described themselves as having “really addictive style behaviors” toward the Internet and cellphones scored much higher on depression and anxiety scales.

However, Lleras pointed out that the motivation for going online is an important factor in relating technology usage to depression and anxiety. The researchers found no relationship between the cellphone or Internet use and negative mental health outcomes among participants who used these technologies to escape boredom.

“We shouldn’t be scared of people connecting online or talking on their phones,” he said. “The interaction with the device is not going to make you depressed if you are just using it when you are bored.”

Lleras and undergraduate honors student Tayana Panova surveyed over 300 university students with questionnaires that addressed the students’ mental health, amount of cellphone and Internet use, and motivations for turning to their electronic devices. Questions included: “Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cellphone use?” and “Do you think that life without the Internet is boring, empty and sad?”

The goal was to see if addictive and self-destructive behaviors with phones and the Internet related to mental health.

In a follow-up study, Lleras tested the role of having, but not using, a cellphone during a stressful situation. Individuals who were allowed to keep their cellphones during an experimental, stressful situation were less likely to be negatively affected by stress compared with those without their phones.

“Having access to a phone seemed to allow that group to resist or to be less sensitive to the stress manipulation,” Lleras said. This benefit was both small and short-lived, but suggests the phone might serve as a comfort item in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.

While the role of phones as comfort items is somewhat tenuous, the relationship between motivation for cellphone or Internet use and mental health warrants further exploration, Lleras said. Breaking addictive technology habits may provide an important supplemental treatment for addressing mental health issues such as general anxiety disorder or depression, he said.

By Sarah Banducci, Illinois News Bureau intern
March 2016