How mobile phone usage can impact mental health

By Sam Steers
With it being Mental Health Awareness Week, Mobile Magazine takes a look at how mobile phone usage can impact mental well-being and ways to reduce it...

In today’s society, mobile phones are a necessity. From replying to messages to sending emails and keeping up with news and social media, they have become a tool which people are reliant upon, and keep the world connected.

However, this over-reliance can be detrimental too. Mobile phones are known to impact mental health and well-being for several reasons such as the need to stay updated, the effects of social media, and the term ‘doom-scrolling’, to name just a few. 

Below, we’re going to highlight some of the key problems, delving into the depths of smart device-related woes and the negative impact that they have on society and our mental well-being.  

Staying updated in today’s society

Thanks to smartphones and their ability to allow us to keep in touch with colleagues and stay informed of news the minute it happens, we, as a society, feel more included and there is less chance of missing out on anything. 

Sometimes, though, being connected to everything all of the time can put pressure on an individual and has the potential to affect their mental health should they miss out on something or momentarily lose that connection. This is commonly known as the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) and it can be harmful.

The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)

According to Elizabeth Scott MS, a wellness coach and author, the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) refers to “the feeling or perception that others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are. It involves a deep sense of envy and affects self-esteem.”

“It is not just the sense that there might be better things that you could be doing at this moment, but it is the feeling that you are missing out on something fundamentally important that others are experiencing right now,” she said.

One of the most common areas where FOMO is prevalent is on social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

Social Media

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Facebook reaction buttons. Image: Getty Images

It’s clear that most people like to check their social feeds to see what friends and family are doing, or to let other people know what they are doing. Social media has become part of life; part of daily routine, even. 

It’s on social media where FOMO is most experienced. Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and tweets all cause a feeling of self-doubt and unhappiness. One reason for this, according to Psychologist Romeo Vitelli Ph.D., is due to an addiction that people have when it comes to social media and smartphones. 

Vitelli compares social media addiction to drug or alcohol-related dependency. In a blog post about the effects of excessive social media use on mental health, he said: “While Internet addiction lacks many of the physical symptoms linked to drug or alcohol addiction, adolescents can still develop a psychological dependence on online activities.”

He added: “When their access to the Internet is cut off for any reason, they can experience a form of withdrawal as well as being unable to function normally without regular online contact. Researchers have also linked compulsive Internet use to a range of mental health concerns including low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, social phobia, and even suicidal thoughts.”

‘Doom-scrolling’

The COVID-19 pandemic has had adverse effects on how we work, how we shop and has introduced a new way of socialising via Zoom, an app that had previously not been used as much as it is now. 

As a result, the pandemic has always been in the headlines with daily reports on the number of cases, and news on the toll it's taking on the National Health Service. This, in the digital world, can result in ‘doom-scrolling’.

The term doom-scrolling, while most applicable to Twitter, affects every app and many mobile phone users. The definition of doom-scrolling or doom-surfing is “the activity of searching the internet to read items about tragic or disastrous events.” Much like social media itself, it can become addictive and lead to feelings of sadness and even hopelessness. 

Doom-scrolling’ also applies to scrolling through news stories and websites that evoke that same feeling. It is the idea that searching through “gloomy” news can cause an individual to feel a sense of dread and despair. 

Mobile phone use, mental health, and sleep

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Blue light emitted from mobile phones can negatively affect sleep. Image: Getty Images

It is not uncommon for people to use their mobile phones before going to sleep. Whether it’s one last quick check of your emails or sending one more message, phone usage before going to bed can affect our quality of sleep. 

A study conducted in 2017 by the Journal of Child Development found that mobile phone usage at night can cause sleeping problems in young people. It says that this is primarily due to the blue light emitted from the screen, causing difficulties in falling asleep, and instead causing the individual to remain awake. 

To avoid this, the National Sleep Foundation recommends switching off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before going to sleep and, where possible, charging devices in a different room overnight. 

Minimising the effect of mobile phone use on our mental health

While it is difficult to completely disconnect from the digital world and avoid using mobile phones altogether, there are several ways to reduce the effects that it can have on mental health, including the effects of social media usage. 

  • Screen-free meal times. Doing this not only limits the amount of time you spend looking at your phone but also provides the chance to talk to those around you which makes you feel better, reducing the temptation to keep checking your phone. 
  • Go for a walk without your phone. Walking is not only refreshing and allows you some time to think, it is also a good opportunity to have a break from your device, too. 
  • For social media, setting a limit of two or three days a week and then deleting the apps for the remaining days could help your well-being. 
  • Set screen time limits. This is another way to improve our well-being as setting screen-time restrictions reduces the temptation to be on our phones and the tendency to doom scroll. 

In his book, ‘Notes on A Nervous Planet, Author Matt Haig, who has experienced mental health difficulties of his own, offered some useful ways to use a smartphone while still taking care of our mental health. In the chapter titled ‘How to own a smartphone and still be a functioning human being’, Haig gave some personal advice on the topic. One of the most helpful ways for him included turning off notifications. 

Haig Wrote: “Turn off notifications. This is essential. This keeps me (just about) sane." He recommended turning all of them off as “you don’t need them.” He also mentioned resisting the temptation to check your phone. 

“Don’t press the home button to check the screen every two minutes for texts. Practise feeling the urge to check and don’t,” he said. 

Haig also writes in the book that the need to constantly check comes down to uncertainty and that, if we can manage this, then our well-being will improve. 

He wrote: “Accept uncertainty. The temptation to check your phone is down to uncertainty - that’s what makes it so addictive. You want to see the promise and mystery of the three little circles, dancing with hope.

But Haig adds that this can wait. He asks: “How many times do you touch your phone a day? Or look at it? The answer might be well in the hundreds. Imagine if you just looked at your phone, say, five times a day. What catastrophe would occur?”

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