Forget the Ambien and Prozac–Just Put Away Your Cell Phone, Part II

Perhaps you’ll recall from our last post (with the same clever title as this, only a ‘Part I ‘ in place of ‘Part II,’ as these things go) the following:

  • –>Young adults ages 20-24 are heavy information and communication technology (ICT) users.
  • –>According to self-reports, mental health and sleep have  deteriorated, and stress has increased among this self-same group.

–>Social scientists wondered if there be a connection between these two facts. [And if you don’t remember these facts, then your memory operates like mine, and I have to believe we’re both just fine.]

Lead researcher Sara Thomée and her colleagues studied over 4100 young adults with mobile phones, and usage running from “low” (which didn’t sound that low to me, to be totally frank) to “medium” to “high.” She assessed their sleep, stress levels, and mental health at baseline, and then in a one-year follow-up.
Anyway, at baseline, things already didn’t look very good for the heavy users.

The young adults were evaluated for mental health outcomes that included current stress, sleep disorders, and symptoms of depression.

Now, I must stop here for a bit of a research snob’s gripe. The authors didn’t exactly conduct the most thorough assessment of the  issues that one might desire.

Stress was assessed by asking–and this cuts straight to the chase, so you have to respect them–“Are you currently experiencing stress,” which was defined as tension, restlessness, nervousness, anxiety, or inability to sleep at night due to troubled mind.

Sleep disturbance came down to “How often have you had problems with your sleep these past 30 days (e.g., difficulties falling asleep, repeated awakenings, waking up too early)?” which looks like a serious psychological analysis when you compare it to their diagnosis of depression.

There they used a screening form with two items, characterized by two questions. Here you got to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ (For interest’s sake, the scale is called the Prime-MD screening form, and the questions were: “During the past month, have you often been bothered by: (a) little interest or pleasure in doing things? (b) feeling down, depressed, or hopeless?”)

All answers to questions were multiple choice, and of course all based on self-report, so I do take some of these results with a larger grain of salt than I might.


To get to the point, this will probably shock precisely no one, but higher usage was associated with worse mental health outcomes, even after adjusting for just about everything that might cause mental health issues in young people– relationship status, educational level,   and present occupation.

Wrote the authors:

There were positive associations between high compared to low mobile phone use and current stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression  for both the men and the women. . .For the men, overuse was associated with current stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression, and for the women, overuse was associated with all mental health outcomes.

One year later, high versus low mobile use at baseline was, yet again,  correlated with reported sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression among both genders.

Medium overuse was associated with current stress and high and medium overuse was associated with sleep disturbances. High accessibility stress was associated with current stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression for both the men and the women.

In short they would conclude that high versus low usage had worse outcomes overall.

In the majority of analyses . . . in [this study] . . .the high category of the exposure variable generated a higher PR  [prevalence ratio, or, basically, how often mental distress, stress, and sleep disturbance occurred] compared to the medium category. 

For relevance sake, the authors emphasize that

it should be noted that the “high” category of mobile phone use in our study does not reflect an extreme part of the population, since almost 25% of the study group belonged to this category.

And that is certainly not unique to Sweden, as any American can attest to.

But, in a fascinating non-correlation, the frequency of the youths’ mobile use had little or no association with perceived access to social support (question posed: “When I have problems in my private life I have access to support and help.”).

What are we to make of that, I wonder?

We have kids are out there on the phone literally day and night, taking random phone calls at 4 in the morning. Their sleep is disturbed, they feel stressed, and they even may suffer some depression as a result of the toll the calls and text messages take on their lives. But, despite all that (seemingly more than desired) interaction,  they feel alone and unsupported.

Something is definitely wrong with our society, and it’s something that no app on a mobile phone can fix.


Thomée S. ICT use and mental health in young adults: Effects of computer and mobile phone use on stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression. University of Gothenberg:  Gothenburg, Sweden, 2012.

Thomée S, et al. Perceived connections between information and communication technology use and mental symptoms among young adults – a qualitative studyBMC Public Health 2010; 10:66.

Thomée S, Härenstam A, Hagberg M.  Mobile phone use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults – a prospective cohort studyBMC Public Health 2011; 11:66.

Leave a Reply