Chronus City smartphone application .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Smartphones cause depression” – You have probably seen this headline more than once. Sometimes “anxiety” is added, too. The more sincere authors add a question mark, because they are well aware that the studies that link excessive cell-phone use with psychological disorders are correlational rather than cause-and-effect studies.
When things are correlated you cannot know which variable is the cause and which is the effect.
To prove that it is cell-phone use that causes mental illness we would have to, for example, take first graders across socio-economic classes and regions, give some of them cell-phones, prevent others from using them and even create another group that was instructed to read a book for the same amount of time as we told the group given smartphones to play on their phones. With certain experimental caveats, we would be able to measure levels of mental illness after, say, six months, one year, five and 10 years.
If the groups differed, and we controlled for other factors, we might be able to conclude that it was due to cell phone usage.
I believe the correlation or association to be true. My personal and professional experiences as a practicing psychologist bear the correlation out almost without exception. However, professionals, teachers and parents must consider that the causal relationship may actually be in the opposite direction. Depressed or anxious kids may actually have a greater tendency to retreat to their rooms and find comfort or get a boost from screen usage.
In the past, when children retreated to their rooms, or avoided playing during recess at school, parents would ask their kids what was wrong, and not easily accept “nothing” as the answer. Today, the early signs of depression and anxiety are often missed because of the partial curative effect of the screen. Depression and anxiety symptoms grow slowly and insidiously until the disorder becomes more entrenched and the treatment becomes more complex and difficult.
What should we do? First, we should set guidelines of appropriate usage and stand by them as parents. A simple suggestion is to institute a family “dinner time.” It does not matter at what time.
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But set the time and set the phone aside.
It is never too late to start.
During dinner time ask about those topics that make kids uncomfortable.
Bullying, gender relations, gender orientation and also what happened that day. Regular contact with a person, particularly a parent, is the best remedy for derailing an oncoming depression. Once the disorder sets in, more may be needed.
But if we look up from our own screens enough and attend to the initial signs, then the next headline will be, “Parents got off phone, kids did too and there was less depression.”
It will still be a correlational study, but at least we’ll be debating the positive causes of good moods rather than the opposite.
When we see headlines like “Smartphones cause depression” we assume that it is the lack of direct communication that causes the depressive or anxious response. However, in Exodus, the Children of Israel were made anxious by the unimpeded communication directly from God and demanded that Moses be the interlocutor. To be sure, Bnei Yisrael didn’t always follow God’s instruction, but we cannot blame that on the nature of the communication, with or without an intermediary.
We need to look at the whole picture to assess what went wrong. It is easy to blame the phone, but we may be missing the reality when we do.
The author is a lecturer in family and community studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He received his PhD in psychology from The New School University and rabbinic ordination from Schechter.
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