01/03/2024

If you believe that handing your child a smartphone or tablet early in life will give her a digital head start, here’s a dark downside you need to know about. A disturbing new survey indicates that the sooner a child is given a smartphone, the more likely they are to suffer from mental health issues as a young adult.
The findings, released globally on Monday and shared with TOI, are alarming. Metrics of mental well-being were found to steadily decline with decreasing age of first smartphone ownership (which includes tablets).
Even young adults who had owned smartphones in early childhood reported more suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression toward others, a sense of detachment from reality, and hallucinations, the study in more than 40 countries conducted by a US-based non-profit organization United States Sapien laboratories found.
The new global study compiled data from 27,969 adults aged 18-24 from over 40 countries, including around 4,000 from India. She found that women seem to be more affected.
As many as 74% of women surveyed who got their first smartphone at age 6 had severe mental health problems as a young adult with scores that fell under “distress” or “distressed” MHQ extension align. This dropped to 61% for those who got their first smartphone at the age of 10 and to 52% for those who bought the device at 15. Among those who got their first smartphone at age 18, 46 percent were rated as mentally challenged or struggling, according to the study.
For males, the trend was similar but less acute. About 42% of those who received their first smartphone at age 6 were classified in “distressed” or “distressed” mental states, which dropped to 36% for those who received the device at age 6. aged 18. The ‘Age of First Smartphone and Mental Wellbeing Outcome’ study, used an assessment covering a range of symptoms and mental abilities that were combined to provide an aggregated mental health quotient (MHQ). These scores were then compared with the reported age of first smartphone or tablet ownership among respondents.
“Picking up on the phone early means more mental health problems as an adult, particularly suicidal thoughts, feelings of aggression toward others, and a sense of detachment from reality; overall, a poorer sense of ‘social self’, i.e. how we he sees himself and relates to others,” said the neuroscientist Tara Tiagarajanfounder and chief scientist of Sapien Labs who led 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 83%, or 7% higher than the international average of 76%.
Although the Sapien Labs study shows a strong link between early smartphone use and mental health problems in young adulthood, it does not go into its causes. Thiagarajandid, however, offer some insights. “Usage statistics show that children spend between 5 and 8 hours a day online, which is up to 2,950 hours a year! Before the smartphone, much of this time would have been spent engaging with family in some way and friends. Social behavior is complex and needs to be learned and practiced. Think of the soccer analogy. Anyone can kick a ball and run by the age of two, but it takes a lot of practice to develop both the skill and the 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 earliest age of smartphone use in women aged 18 to 24, the link was almost non-existent among men. “Trends for males are weaker globally,” Thiagarajan explained. “I imagine some of the trends could become statistically significant for India if the numbers increase. ‘Suicidal thoughts’, for example, are borderline on what is considered statistical significance. It’s not entirely clear why there is such a difference It could be due to the way males use smartphones compared to females, but it could also be that females are biologically more predisposed for social education and therefore are more affected.”
For parents, the results have a clear message. “Delay handing your child a smartphone as much as possible – the older the better. That said, peer pressure is high and no one is better off ruling out one than a child. At the same time, focus on your social development of the child: it is of paramount importance for his mental well-being and his ability to navigate the world and is what has been replaced by the use of the telephone,” said the neuroscientist.
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