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04 December, 2019

What does our smartphone use mean for our mental health?

Developing a healthy relationship with smartphones is important for our mental health

Developing a healthy approach to our smartphone use is important to avoid them becoming 'weapons of mass distraction', says our Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Dr Colman Noctor.

Living in an attention economy

Smartphone use has undoubtedly risen across society over the last number of years. From staying in touch with friends and sharing on social media, to watching television or even monitoring our fitness levels, our phones play all kinds of roles in our daily lives.

Living in an attention economy

The average Irish person now checks their phone 50 times a day and our smartphone usage stands as the highest in the western world.

However, developing an unhealthy reliance on smartphones can affect our relationships and mental health, with this issue being explored in a recent RTÉ piece for its Prime Time programme. Its reporter, Conor McMorrow, sets out to examine whether we are addicted to our smartphones.

Speaking to Conor, Dr Noctor explains that:

The term addiction is a controversial one but we definitely would see people with problematic relationships with technology.

Dr Noctor notes that technology and social media companies build their devices with addictive elements to deliberately catch our interest and engagement.

We're living in an attention economy, so everyone is vying for our attention. The more time we spend looking at a certain screen, the more advertising revenue can be charged. So, the whole purpose of the software is to keep you watching; the mechanism of what we look at is built to hack our attention span and keep us there as long as possible.

Affecting relationships and mental health

Affecting relationships and mental health

There is a growing area of research exploring the relationship between smartphone use and mental health, with indications that heavy use can be linked to stress and anxiety, or feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Dr Noctor gives an example of how smartphone use can impact on the time we spend and relationships with each other, noting:

five years ago all you would hear were parents saying 'I can't get access to my daughter because she is stuck behind a screen'. Unfortunately, now what we see is young people saying to us "I can't access my parents because they are always behind a screen".

He explains how we spend our time on smartphones can affect how we view and feel about ourselves.

My real worry is that, when we live with what are technological 'weapons of mass distraction', we spend so much time distracted in another device that we don't tend to get to know or spend any time with ourselves. A lot of the young people I see would struggle with a sense of self or a sense of identity, and find themselves being who everyone else wants them to be and forgetting to be themselves.

With this in mind, Dr Noctor highlights the importance of assessing our relationships with our devices and checking that our behaviours on them are healthy; for instance, spending an hour on our phones aimlessly scrolling through a social media feed is very different to spending an hour watching a video that, for example, teaches us a new instrument.

At the heart of the issue, Colman reiterates that, while smartphones and technology can bring many advantages and benefits to us, using them in a mindful way is important for minding our mental health and connections with others.

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