Waiting with a Phone

Phones, Social Media, Mental Health, and Obesity

Skimming the headlines, it would be easy to think that the combination of mobile phones and social media are responsible for quite a range of our current ills – including mental health and obesity. If you want to dig deeper, you can find a whole tome on the subject from Jonathan Haidt. He has woven quite a compelling narrative. Phones have stolen the joy of play from childhood, he says. They’ve created an Anxious Generation.

A string of anecdotes and correlations might make a compelling narrative. But it does not add up to compelling evidence. It is not at all clear exactly what lies at the root of important problems we face with mental and physical health.

The reality of how we interact with technology is more complex than popular narratives suggest. How we use technology can be more important than the technology itself.

Phones and Adolescent Mental Health

Writing in the Atlantic, developmental psychologist Candice Odgers suggests that Haidt is overstating his case:

“Since 2008, I have studied 10-to-15-year-olds using their mobile phones, with the goal of testing how a wide range of their daily experiences, including their digital-technology use, influences their mental health. My colleagues and I have repeatedly failed to find compelling support for the claim that digital-technology use is a major contributor to adolescent depression and other mental-health symptoms.

“Many other researchers have found the same.”

The challenge of understanding causality requires more than a good narrative.

Phones and Obesity

Researchers have found suggestions that there is a relationship between excessive smartphone use and obesity. But causality is not so clear in this case, either. A recent study in BMC Public Health sums up the state of knowledge on this:

“Results indicate that excessive screen time on smartphones does have complex associations with youth health. Further investigation with more robust study designs is needed to inform smartphone-specific screen time guidelines for youth.”

So yes, more research is needed for a genuine understanding of causality in the relationships among health, phones, and social media. Moral panic is not adequate for solving complex problems.

Click here for access to Odgers’ essay in the Atlantic and here for the study phones and obesity in BMC Public Health.

Waiting with a Phone, photograph by Ted Kyle / ConscienHealth

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May 26, 2024

3 Responses to “Phones, Social Media, Mental Health, and Obesity”

  1. May 26, 2024 at 7:37 am, Elizabeth Guckenheimer said:

    Adolescents are distressed about climate change, school shootings, wars, poverty, student debt, stripping away of reproductive rights, homelessness, silencing, global epidemics, inequality and injustice, and many more real issues including political violence and the rhetoric of cruelty. Blaming cell phones is a distraction and, in my view, an excuse not to fix the deep problems that we, the adults have created and all too often, turn our backs on. My advice to the expert adults is to stop talking and start listening. What sound like mental health problems may resolve into real concerns about the present and the future. And after you have listened, take action.

  2. May 26, 2024 at 7:39 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Drat, Ted! Now I’m going to have to read the Odgers article properly!

    I am very fond of Jon Haidt and found his essay on The Atlantic compelling (TBC, his narrative is a lot more complicated/sophisticated than “it’s the smartphones”)–but that shouldn’t have me turn off my curiosity, right??!!

    Good on the Atlantic to offer readers both takes, I’d say.

    Oh, and I do have “feelings” when it comes to the journal, BMC Public Health (see below). Don’t get me started on that unless you have a lot of time to kill!


    Haidt in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2024/03/teen-childhood-smartphone-use-mental-health-effects/677722/

    Insight in to Joe’s BMC Public Health frustration: https://retractionwatch.com/2023/10/04/authors-file-complaint-with-publisher-as-journal-retracts-vaping-paper/

    • May 26, 2024 at 7:42 am, Ted said:

      Yes, Joe, BMC Public Health publishes a lot of dubious stuff. And Jonathan Haidt is one smart cookie.

      I started writing this post with the thought that phones and social media are clearly problematic. But I could not come up with compelling evidence for that. So the best answer I can offer is, “It’s complicated.”