Experts Disagree on the Effect of Cell Phones on Adolescent Mental Health
We recently published an article called Why Are Teens Lonelier and More Depressed? that discussed the state of mental health in our adolescent population as of 2021. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows a marked deterioration in the overall mental health of our teen over the past twenty years. Key data points include the following:
- Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents (age 12-17) and young adults (age 15-24)
- Rates of depression among teens increased steadily over the past twenty years
- Rates of anxiety among teens increased steadily over the past twenty years
- With a small dip in 2020, rates of alcohol and substance use disorders (alcohol and drug addiction) increased steadily over the past twenty years.
The pandemic certainly didn’t help teen mental health in 2020.
But the trend was there before the pandemic, as outlined clearly in the article we published (above), which drew information from a peer-reviewed research paper called Worldwide Increases in Adolescent Loneliness.
Depression and Loneliness in Teens Around the World
It’s important to pay attention to what we’ll call The World Teen Loneliness Study for several reasons.
It’s the first study on the topic that analyzed loneliness in teens worldwide. It included data from over 1.5 million teens age 15-16. And it surveyed students at several points over a period that’s crucial for understanding the impact of cell phone use on teen mental health. The study began in 2000. Researchers collected data that year. They collected data again in 2003, 2008, 2012, and 2018. That covers the time before most teens had cell phones (pre-2010) to the time after most teens had cell phones (around 2012).
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Key data points from that study show the largest increases in adolescent loneliness occurred in:
- Orthodox Countries (Bulgaria and Russia):
- 2000-2018: 74%
- 2012-2018: 69%
- Baltic countries (Latvia)
- 2000-2018: 61%
- 2012-2018: 50%
- English speaking countries:
- 2000-2018: 53%
- 2012-2018: 16%
- Latin American Countries (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru):
- 2000-2018: 36%
- 2012-2018: 53%
You see the reason we included this data. The greatest increases in adolescent loneliness worldwide occurred after 2012. That’s the year identified as the point at which over half of teens in the U.S. and other countries had regular and virtually unrestricted access to cell phones, including smartphones.
But there’s a catch.
The Experts Disagree: Two Opposing Viewpoints
The catch is actually a conundrum.
One group of people, including mental health experts and laypeople alike (parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers), are convinced cell phones/smartphones are to blame for the increase in mental health and addiction problems in teens seen over the past two decades. They say data like the above proves it without a doubt. Before cellphones, less mental health problems and addiction. After cell phones, more mental health problems and addiction.
To them the case is open and shut:
Cell phones are to blame.
On the other hand, another group of people, also including mental health experts and laypeople, are not convinced cellphones, smartphones, and the content teens encounter while using them are to blame for the increase in mental health and addiction problems in teens over the past two decades. They say the data offered by publications like The World Teen Loneliness Study do not present an open and shut case with regards to cell phones and teen mental health because the data are correlative and not causative.
Here’s a quick explanation of the difference between correlation and causation:
Correlation is a statistical measure that describes the relationship between two or more variables. Positive correlation between two variables means as one variable increases, the other increases, too. Negative correlation means the opposite. As one variable increases, the other variable decreases.
Correlation between variables does not mean a change in one variable causes the change in the other variable. It means they’re related either positively or negatively.
Causation is a statistical measure that indicates that one variable or event is the result of the other variable or event. This is simple cause and effect. To learn about the criteria that need to be met to determine causation in a scientific experiment, click here.
The difference between correlations is an important concept to understand, in this context.
Because those in the cell phones are to blame camp assert the positive correlation between cell phone use and mental health problems among teens is strong enough to say, yes, cell phones are the problem.
The other camp points to another set of correlations.
Those indicate that for some people, cell phone and social media use have positive and robust associations with positive mental health. In some groups, using digital media increases self-esteem and well-being. It also decreases depression and loneliness. For this camp, the problem is more nuanced than a yes/no with regards to cell phones and social media. For them, the what, why, and how are more important than the presence or absence of cell phones and the use of digital media alone.
There’s also another fact. No experiment designed to determine a causal relationship between cell phone/digital media use on the mental health of teens has proved anything in either direction.
It seems like we’ve strayed from the question posed in the title of this article. But all this prelude is necessary for understanding the big picture.
And in this case, the big picture is not simple.
The Case for Keeping Cell Phones Out of School
Let’s go ahead address the question in the title of this article with an unsatisfying one-word answer: probably.
To echo the conclusions of the people at Common Sense Media, eliminating cell phones in schools might improve the mental health of some students. It also might degrade the mental health of others. To understand what they mean, please read our article Does Social Media Cause Depression in Teenagers? And understand that for most teens, cell phone use and social media use are virtually synonymous.
Now let’s talk basics.
Most adults can think of a thousand reasons keeping cell phones out of school is a good idea. The simplest reason is that cell phones can be a distraction from the primary point of being at school, which is to learn. The next reason is that the presence of cell phones in school might reinforce the migration from face-to-face communication to digital communication. This is a valid concern. After academic learning, the second most important part of school is learning how to get along with people in the real world. In addition to education, school is about learning how to socialize IRL, as it’s known in text-speak.
If we allow teens unlimited access to a device that degrades their ability to learn and their need to communicate face-to-face with peers from different backgrounds while they’re at school, then that seems like an obvious net negative.
But are those mental health reasons?
Cell Phones at School: Practical Effects
Yes and no.
On the yes side, it’s easy to make a strong case that social communication is an important element of adolescent development and enhances mental health in the long run. It’s also easy to make a strong case that academic success – which a distraction like a cell phone can impair if teens text rather than taking notes during class – also boosts self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s well-known that both self-esteem and self-confidence enhance overall mental health in the long run.
Therefore, it’s also easy to go ahead and say it.
Keeping cell phones out of school would help teen mental health.
But on the no side, we can’t really say that with confidence.
The causal evidence simply does not exist. By causal evidence, we mean data collected from random controlled trials designed to determine causality (see links above). We keep harping on this because verifiable, reliable evidence is the cornerstone of science. It forms the bedrock of a scientific approach to mental health. Reliable evidence undergirds all the conclusions we make about adolescent mental health and mental health treatment.
Keeping cell phones out of school feels right to most adults. But we know from experience that what we feel and what’s proven by solid experimental design, data, and evidence are not always the same thing.
There is evidence, however – but it’s mainly anecdotal, rather than correlative or causal – that keeping cell phones out of school improves academic performance and can facilitate a return to robust IRL encounters and communication between students.
Here’s the evidence:
Banning Cell Phones: Improved Academic Performance and Reduced Bullying
- A middle school in Colorado banned cell phones in 2012 and reports improvements in academic achievement and student wellbeing.
- A paper that examined a ban on cell phones in four schools in England reported an increase in student performance that correlates with the cell phone ban.
- Researchers in Spain found a ban on cell phones in school improved academic achievement and decreased bullying.
- A study conducted in Norway also found that a ban on cell phones also improved academic performance and decreased bullying.
Although none of these studies are designed to determine causality, in the strict, traditional sense of the word, they do offer compelling evidence that the absence of cell phones in middle and high schools improves academic performance and decreases school bullying. When we connect the dots between cell phones, academic performance, bullying, and teen mental health, then we can revise the unsatisfying answer probably we offered earlier.
Based on what we know, we can write a sentence like this with confidence:
The anecdotal evidence from several schools and correlative evidence from several studies appears to indicate that keeping cell phones would have an indirect, positive impact on teen mental health.
Cell Phones and Digital Media: Keeping Perspective
This debate has raged for almost twenty years now. In 2006, New York City banned cell phones from schools but lifted that ban in 2015 based on pressure from parents and a lack of causal evidence that cell phones detracted from the overall student experience.
That’s one school district in one city – albeit a big school district and a big city.
What adults interested in the mental health and school lives of our adolescents should remember is that most of us romanticize our school years.
And sentimentality, rather than evidence, informs most of that glorification.
For instance, latchkey kids from the 70s who are now parents love to point out that – if you believe their social media posts – they basically lived a wild and dangerous life. By today’s standards, at least. They were out of the house from sunup ‘til sundown all day all summer, rode on bench seats in cars that may or may not have had seatbelts, and never wore helmets on neighborhood bike rides. Without a computer or a cell phone in sight, they lived and thrived, playing outdoors in woods and creeks. They came home covered in mud, tired, and sweaty.
We use the 70s kids/now parents as an example, but adults of most previous generations look on the ubiquity of cell phones with scorn. They blame cell phones for the deterioration of in-person communication skills, the reliance on the internet for answers to simple questions, and a preoccupation with image over substance.
Cell phones also now get a lion’s share of the blame for the increase in mental health problems among adolescents. But without real, causal evidence, we’ll stick to our qualified, revised, evidence-based answer: data seem to indicate banning cell phones in school will help teen mental health, but the jury is still out.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.