Do you turn to your iPhone because you're bored -- or because you're trying to avoid dealing with stressful or unpleasant things in your life?
The way you answer that question might say a lot about your mental health. Excessive smartphone use is a possible sign of mental health problems, and using your phone to escape real-life stresses could be linked to the development of mental health issues, according to new research.
There are important connections between compulsive Internet use and mental illness, psychologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain suggest in a study that will be published in the May issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
"It appears that people who use cell phones to avoid stress and negative events in their real life also tend to have mental health problems," Dr. Alejandro Lleras, a psychologist at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Mental health providers may want to assess cellphone use patterns in their patients and include that in their treatment."
For the study, Lleras and his colleagues asked over 300 university undergraduates about their mental health, smartphone and Internet habits, and motivations for using digital devices. Questions included: "Do you think that your academic or work performance has been negatively affected by your cellphone use?" and "Do you think that life without the Internet is boring, empty and sad?"
People who engaged in addictive and self-destructive smartphone behaviors were more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, they found.
It seems that using a smartphone offers a small buffering effect against stress, leading some people to turn to their devices as a means of evading a problem, often referred to as "avoidance coping."
"Avoidance coping works in the short term, but it has been shown to lead to poor mental health outcomes in the long run." - Dr. Alejandro Lleras
Such unhealthy coping behaviors were linked to the development of certain mental illnesses, including depression.
"Avoidance coping works in the short term, but it has been shown to lead to poor mental health outcomes in the long run," Lleras said. "Our results suggest that some people use their smartphones or the Internet as a way of avoidance coping."
The important thing, Lleras said, is not how often you use your smartphone but your motivation for using it. If you're surfing the Internet to keep your mind occupied while you're waiting in line at Starbucks or sitting on the bus, then your mental health probably isn't at risk. But if you're on Facebook to avoid thinking about a recent break-up, there may be a bigger issue.
"It seems like the motive to engage in smartphone use has an important mediating effect on whether use is correlated with poor mental health," Lleras said. "In short, it appears that people who use cell phones to avoid negative events in their real life also tend to have mental health problems."