Delaying smartphone ownership could result in better mental health among children and young people, according to a new global study.
The Sapien Labs study highlights that earlier age of smartphone ownership among current 18-24-year-olds is associated with much poorer mental health outcomes, with women being more badly affected.
As the age of first ownership went up from 6 years to 18 years, percentage of women experiencing mental health challenges decreased from 74% to 46%; for males, the percentage declined from 42% at age 6 to 36% at age 18, according to the study, titled Age of First Smartphone and Mental Well-being Outcomes.
“The mental well-being of each younger generation has progressively declined. Simultaneously, the rapid adoption of smartphones during this period has changed the cognitive and social habits of users. The report examines the mental wellbeing of 18-24-year-olds in relation to the age at which they first got their own smartphone or tablet to determine the cumulative impact of growing up with smartphones,” said a paper based on the study.
The obvious issue is not with the smartphones themselves, but what they are used for — which, in the case of young people, is largely social media — and on Big Tech’s reluctance for any sort of guard rails. From that perspective, the findings of the study are in sync with research that shows that social media is responsible for mental health issues in some young people. For instance, in 2021, The Wall Street Journal’s reporting showed that Facebook’s own research highlighted mental health issues among teenage girls caused by its app Instagram.
“Using data from a sample of 27,969 18-24-year-olds obtained through the Global Mind Project, the study provides a comprehensive Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) spanning a wide range of symptoms and mental capabilities,” the paper on the study added.
The Global Mind Project is an ongoing survey of global mental well-being along with various lifestyle 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 as well as dimensional scores. The researchers said that they compared these scores and ratings of individual elements to the reported age of first smartphone or tablet ownership.
Mental well-being, the study added, consistently improved with older age of first reported ownership of a smartphone.
“The results are consistent across regions, including South Asia, and thus apply to India as well. Problems with suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards 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,” said the researchers.
They also said that the relationship between mental well-being at age 18-24 and age of first smartphone acquisition is significant even among participants with no traumatic or adverse childhood experience.
“This report makes a critical contribution in shaping our understanding of the role of early access to technology in influencing mental health outcomes for children and youth. The findings have significant implications for schools, parents, employers and others in India, home to over 200 million youth in the age group of 15-25 years,” said Shailender Swaminathan, director, Sapien Labs Centre for the Human Brain and Mind, India, in a statement.
“On the policy front, along with addressing external factors such as poverty, extreme hunger, and unemployment, regulating the age of smartphone adoption and use is an important lever.”
The Sapien Labs Centre for the Human Brain and Mind is a collaboration between Sapien Labs (USA) and Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), which is the sponsoring body of Krea University. Sapien Labs aims to pursue research and learning related to the human brain and mind.
To be sure, the results need to read with a caveat as far as India is concerned. Data from the 2019-21 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) asked two separate questions on mobile ownership and internet usage. As is expected, almost all households (93.3%) own a mobile phone in India now, which means that the mental health study will be relevant for these households should these phones also have internet. However, a majority of the 15-49 years age group had not used the internet ever in the NFHS, which rules out large smartphone ownership among the young population. Only 51.2% men and 33.3% women in the 15-49 years age group reported having used the internet ever in the 2019-21 NFHS. These numbers drop to 25.7% and 8.6% for the poorest 20% men and women. In fact, lack of internet devices, including smartphones emerged as a big problem when educational institutions went remote during the pandemic. This is rapidly changing, though, especially with both phones and data connections becoming more affordable. It is very likely that a new survey of the same metrics will show a sharp increase in ownership and usage.
“We are not comparing mental health outcomes for children and young adults that have smartphones and those that do not have smartphones. We are leveraging the fact that the age of ownership of smartphones varies — some acquire it as early as 7 or 10 years, and some when they are 18. Our findings suggest that the earlier age of smartphone ownership is associated with worse mental health outcomes”, Swaminathan told HT in a note.