Is Your Phone Killing You? The Answer’s Unclear

Experts respond with skepticism to a recent New York Times story

Last week, the New York Times published a provocative Well piece about smartphones and death that laid out some fascinating points, but it probably belonged in the Opinion section. The article, packaged with the headline “Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer,” draws on recent research to suggest that smartphone use causes a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, perhaps leading to a chronic problem that ultimately shortens one’s life span.

Sure, this could be true. Chronic stress is associated with serious health problems, “including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke,” as the article notes. But right now, we simply don’t have the research to justify freaking people out about their smartphones. We’re missing crucial information that makes a connection between phone use and chronic stress clear.

“The author makes a very strong claim, a rather headline-grabbing claim, that as a scientist I immediately rolled my eyes at.”
I talked to several scientists for this story, most of whom study how people are affected by internet use. All of them, to varying degrees, expressed questions and in some cases concerns about the Times piece.

“I don’t think anyone can prove that phone use causes stress,” says Tamara Afifi, a professor of interpersonal health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of one of the studies quoted in the Times piece. “There is indeed a positive correlation. But I think we need more research to prove causation, at least for chronic stress.”

“The author makes a very strong claim, a rather headline-grabbing claim, that as a scientist I immediately rolled my eyes at,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychology professor and a co-director of the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center at Hunter College who has written about this topic before. “A lot of this work can be taken out of context, because a lot of it uses very extreme examples of either chronic stress exposure or extreme phone addiction.”

One such study, upon which the New York Times piece relies, looked at the impact of smartphone use and withdrawals. It found that compared with healthy controls, subjects with “excessive smartphone use” have less ability to regulate their impulses and control their emotions and experienced higher secretions of the stress hormone cortisol when “withdrawing” from internet use, including from their smartphones. And the study focuses on teens who are already described as using their smartphones in an unhealthy and excessive manner. Smartphone addiction varies worldwide but is estimated to top out at 38%, depending on the definition used; while that’s not an insignificant number, it’s not a majority, either, meaning that the study’s results don’t necessarily apply to everyone.

Dennis-Tiwary says she found the study important but that the results are correlative, not causal. “It could be that these are kids who are going around not being able to regulate their drives and their impulses as well, and they’re the types who get sucked into cellphone use and social media use,” she says. She also notes that the withdrawal symptoms make sense, because anyone who’s experiencing withdrawals is experiencing stress as well.

“It seems fairly sensationalistic,” says Jon Elhai, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toledo who has studied internet addiction. Like Dennis-Tiwary, he pointed out that it’s difficult to make a causal inference from the research we have so far. “Most of the research suggests that it’s the people who start off with mental health problems, those who are the ones who, as a consequence of having mental health problems, the effect is that they end up using their phones more.”

Elhai adds that while it is certainly possible that phone use could cause stress—and there’s some evidence to suggest that it does—“it’s a cycle, and people who are more stressed out to begin with, they, as a result of their stress, tend to alleviate their stress by using their phones, and then that causes more stress.”

This tracks, at least anecdotally. I find myself reaching for my phone and staring at Instagram, eyes glazed, when I’m stressed out over a story or otherwise attempting to escape my anxiety. Sometimes I’ll do this at night as I’m lying in bed, which the Times story says could be bad for our health. One recent study, however, suggests that may not be the case — at least not for teens.

“I don’t think anyone can prove that phone use causes stress.”
The study, which analyzed the phone use and corresponding well-being of 17,247 teenagers from the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, found little obvious evidence that phone use, including before bed, results in lower well-being. The study, like many others, is correlational and cross-sectional, which means that it analyzes data at a particular moment, rather than looking at how the data changes over a long period of time. What the study does offer is a large dataset indicating that the prevailing wisdom — that our phones are having a huge negative impact on our health — might not be as decided as some critics would have us believe.

Still, for us to have a clearer understanding of how detrimental our phones are to our health, let alone whether or not they’re leading us to our deaths, we need studies that look at how our phones are influencing our health over the course of years. And for the most part, those don’t exist yet.

“With cross-sectional studies, what we do is look for associations, so correlations between variables,” says Daria Kuss, a senior psychology lecturer at Nottingham Trent University whose research focuses on internet and gaming addiction. “With longitudinal research — research that is conducted over a longer period of time — we can find out whether the smartphone use is the actual causal factor.”

Kuss went on to note that the data we have now is compelling but not definitive. “I think it is fair to say that [smartphone use] might lead to increased mortality rates, but we do need more research, particularly this longitudinal that gives us an indication of cause and effect. Because the smartphones, the use of our smartphones, may be just one of the factors that contribute to mortality rates.”

This isn’t to say the Times article is a wash. It cites one study that, while small, offers compelling biological evidence that certain aspects of smartphone use are associated with heightened cortisol levels in teens. Dennis-Tiwary notes that the study is suggestive but nevertheless correlational. “It does suggest that some people with elevated stress markers and inflammatory markers, which have to do with stress, might be more sensitive to the negative impact of technology use,” she says.

“This is a really fascinating and important work, especially today, when families are wired most of their waking hours,” says Afifi, one of the study authors, but she agrees with Dennis-Tiwary that “at this point in the research, I would say that it is correlational.”

More research, like the huge ABCD study on brain development, is on the way that will give us a better idea of the relationship between stress, phone use, and maybe even mortality. In the meantime, it’s somewhat premature to say that stress caused by our phones is leading to a dip in our life expectancy. Could that be the case? It certainly could. But until the data is clearer, perhaps it’s wise to hold off on the alarmist headlines. We have enough to be terrified of as it is.

All Rights Reserved for Angela Lashbrook

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