Is Your Mobile Phone Use Bad for Your Mental Health?

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iStock

Smartphones, those digital portals of constant information, have become so integrated into most Americans’ lives, they’re like extra—yet essential—appendages. Some 72 percent of Americans own a smartphone, compared to the global median of 43 percent. But studies have shown that overuse can have a negative impact on your posture, eyesight, and hearing, not to mention distract drivers and pedestrians. More recently, researchers who study the relationship of mobile phone use and mental health have also found that excessive or “maladaptive” use of our phones may be leading to greater incidences of depression and anxiety in users.

It is, however, tricky to parse out whether or not excessive phone use causes these symptoms, or rather if it just exacerbates existing depression and anxiety. Mental Floss took a look at the findings from some recent studies on the subject and asked a clinical psychologist to weigh in.

FOMO CAN BE A FACTOR

A 2016 study in Computers in Human Behavior, titled "Fear of Missing out, need for touch, anxiety and depression are related to problematic smartphone use," set out to explore previously reported causality between “problematic smartphone use and severity of depression and anxiety symptoms.” A total of 308 university students—165 men and 143 women—answered a questionnaire that assessed their mental health, their cell phone and Internet usage, and the reasons they used them.

People who scored higher on scales known as “fear of missing out” (you know—FOMO) and “need for touch” were more likely to overuse their phones. And those who overused their phones were more likely to score higher on the depression and anxiety scales, possibly because, according to the study, problematic smartphone use “may interfere with other pleasurable activities and disrupt social activities, thereby reducing behavioral activation and subsequently increasing depression.”

A NEGATIVE FEEDBACK LOOP

Cell phones, and smartphones in particular, have an undeniably addictive quality, earning an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 5th edition. A review of literature on cell phone addiction, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, describes cell phone and technology addiction manifesting in one or more of the following ways: choosing to use your device even in "dangerous or prohibited contexts;" losing interest in other activities; feeling irritable or uneasy if separated from your phone; or feeling anxiety or loneliness when you’re unable to send or receive an immediate message. The researchers also find that adolescents and women may be more susceptible to this behavioral addiction.

USING YOUR PHONE TO AVOID NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

This negative feedback loop of addiction may pose problems for people who already have trouble regulating negative emotions or tend to suppress them; they may turn to the phone as a coping mechanism. Initially, this may help as a distraction, but over time, it creates a pattern that has negative impact on mental health.

In a 2015 study, also published in Computers in Human Behavior, that examined 318 graduate students at the University of Illinois, researchers found that people who already experience depression and anxiety often turn to their phones or other “information and communication technologies” (ICTs) as a tool for avoidance coping—temporarily distracting themselves from negative feelings. Over a long period of time, this can make a person more vulnerable to mental health problems. But if you’re thinking of how often you check Twitter to make it through a morning commute, don’t panic: Using the phone or other technology is only maladaptive over the long run “when users are attempting to escape negative feelings, thoughts, or experiences and thereby recruit the ICTs as a kind of therapeutic tool,” they clarify.

Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist with the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in California, specializes in anxiety and depression. He tells Mental Floss that in his opinion, the research isn’t conclusive yet on whether cell phone or technology use actually causes depression, but he does agree that avoidance and escapism behaviors, including a social media fixation, can “take you away from addressing problem[s] head on.” He says he can envision a pattern of behavior where initial stress and anxiety might increase cell phone use, taking the person away from what he calls “anti-depressant activities,” such as socializing, exercising, and working. “Then the risk of negative feelings may increase,” Minden says.

While his patients don’t typically report that cell phone or technology use makes them depressed or anxious, he does hear a lot that “electronic media in general really takes them away from more productive work. It’s certainly one of many escape or avoidance behaviors.”

DOES THE METHOD MATTER?

Researchers still haven’t comprehensively explored the different ways people are using their smartphones and other technology, and how these differences might contribute to their mental health. Minden feels it would be more relevant to distinguish “specific cell phone behaviors, not just global cell phone use.” For example, does it make a difference if someone uses their phone for social media or internet browsing, versus texting their friends? The 2015 Computers in Human Behavior study on avoidance did find that “lonely individuals” preferred voice calls over texting, while anxious participants preferred texting over voice calls—suggesting the method of use is connected to, and has an impact on, users’ mental health, both before and after they use their technology.

Minden is more inclined to consider logical consequences of phone use, such as how cell phone usage at night might disrupt normal sleep habits, leading to fatigue, which can cause depression and anxiety symptoms. He cites one longitudinal study published in the journal Child Development, studying 1101 Australian high school students age 13 to 16, which found that poor sleep quality associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, including depression and low self-esteem. Minden was especially interested in the result that the students who used their cell phones frequently in the evenings were at greater risk for depression the following year. “What we can conclude from that study is that perhaps initially high levels of use in your early teen years may predict later depression,” he says.

So while the research remains inconclusive, it might be worth taking a look at how you feel before and after you spend copious amounts of time on your cell phone. It may be harmless—or it may offer an opportunity to improve your mental health.

AI Is Tackling Yet Another Creative Medium: Improv Comedy

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iStock

AI-generated fan fiction, music videos, and film scripts are often so bad that they’re hilarious. Could an AI program get the same number of laughs if it attempted improv comedy in front of a live audience? As Inverse reports, artificial intelligence researcher Kory Mathewson created an algorithm to find out.

Mathewson, from Canada’s University of Alberta, teamed up with London-based researcher Piotr Mirowski to create a chatbot, A.L.Ex, which stands for Artificial Language Experiment. They fed subtitles from 100,000 films into a neural network in the hope that A.L.Ex would be able to come up with jokes and carry on a conversation with a live human performer. (They also applied a filter to the robot to stop it from saying “politically incorrect” things, and presumably to prevent a disaster akin to Tay, Microsoft’s Twitter bot.)

Once A.L.Ex was sufficiently prepared for the spotlight, a performer interacted with the chatbot (who was given a robot body) on stage in an improv scenario. Audiences were asked to participate in a Turing test: During some scenes, a human backstage was controlling the robot's responses, while in others, A.L.Ex was doing all the work. Audience members were later asked to guess whether the dialogue was coming from the bot or an actual human. The experiment was repeated in three locations: Stockholm, Sweden; London, England; and Edmonton, Canada.

The result? The bot failed to fool humans and pass the Turing test, but it still garnered a few laughs. For one thing, the system was unable to tell complete stories. “If you want to tell a story, humans tend to have to pick up the arc and carry it through, since the Cyborg rarely brings arguably important characters or plot items back,” one of the improv performers wrote, according to a paper that Mathewson and Mirowski uploaded to the preprint platform arXiv [PDF].

Mirowski told The New York Times that the bot is like a “completely drunk comedian” who is only “accidentally funny” on occasion. Fortunately for comedy lovers, machines probably won’t be taking over the stage anytime soon. “We do not think that machines will replace human actors or comedians,” Mathewson told Inverse. “We aim to build new tools and techniques for human storytellers to share their human experience. This work aims to test the development of a new form of medium.”

[h/t Inverse]

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

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