The findings – released globally on Monday and shared with TOI – are alarming. Mental well-being parameters were found to consistently decline with decreased age of first ownership of smartphones (which includes tablets).
Young adults who had owned smartphones early in childhood also reported more suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others, a sense of being detached from reality and hallucinations, the study in over 40 countries conducted by US-based non-profit Sapien Labs found.
The new global study gathered data of 27,969 adults aged 18 to 24 years from over 40 countries, including around 4,000 from India. It found that women appear to be more affected.
As many as 74% of female respondents who received their first smartphone at age 6 were found experiencing serious mental health challenges as young adults with scores that fell within “distressed” or “struggling” MHQ range. This decreased to 61% for those who got their first smartphone at age 10 and 52% for those who acquired the device at 15 years. Among those who got their first smartphone at age 18, 46% were assessed as mentally distressed or struggling, the study found.
For males, the trend was similar though less acute. Around 42% of those who got their first smartphone at age 6 were classified under “distressed” or “struggling” mental states, which fell to 36% for those who got the device at age 18. The study, “Age of first smartphone and mental wellbeing outcome”, used an assessment covering a range of symptoms and mental capabilities that were combined to provide an aggregate Mental Health Quotient (MHQ). These scores were then compared to the reported age of first smartphone or tablet ownership among the respondents.
“Getting your phone early means more mental health problems as an adult, particularly suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression towards others and sense of being detached from reality; altogether a poorer sense of ‘social self’, that is, how one views oneself and relates to others,” said neuroscientist Tara Thiagarajan, founder and chief scientist of Sapien Labs that conducted the study.
The findings come against a backdrop of progressive global decline in the mental health of each younger generation across the internet-enabled world that began around 2010-2014. It is particularly relevant to India. According to McAfee’s Global Connected Family study released last year, smartphone use among Indian children aged 10-14 was at 83%, which was 7% above the international average of 76%.
While the Sapien Labs study shows a strong link between early smartphone use and mental health issues in young adulthood, it doesn’t go into its causes. Thiagarajan, however, offered some insights. “Usage statistics show that kids spend between 5 and 8 hours a day online – that’s up to 2,950 hours a year! Before the smartphone, a lot of this time would have been spent engaging in some way with family and friends. Social behavior is complex and needs to be learned and practiced. Think of the analogy to football. Everyone can kick a ball and run at age two but it takes a lot of practice to build both the skill and stamina to get really good at it. Kids aren’t getting that equivalent social practice so they struggle in the social world,” she said.
Curiously, in India, while the study found a correlation between mental well-being and the first age of smartphone use in women aged 18-24, the link was nearly non-existent among men. “The trends for males are weaker globally,” Thiagarajan explained. “I imagine some of the trends might get statistically significant for India if the numbers get larger. ‘Suicidal thoughts’, for example, is on the cusp of what is considered statistical significance. It’s not totally clear why there is such a gender difference. It could be because of the way males use the smartphone relative to females but it could also be that females are more biologically wired for social nurturing and are therefore more affected.”
For parents, the findings have a clear message. “Delay giving your child a smartphone as much as possible – the older the better. That said, the peer pressure is high and it is best if no one has one rather than one child being left out. At the same time, focus on your child’s social development – it is fundamentally important for their mental wellbeing and capability for navigating the world and is what has been displaced by use of the phone,” the neuroscientist said.
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