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Increased Smartphone Use Could be Link to Decline in Mental Wellbeing In Young Adults

The growth of smartphone use and an increase in social isolation point to a decline in the mental health of young adults ages 18-24. That’s according to Sapien Labs’ recently released, “Mental State of the World Report 2021,” which found that mental wellbeing has been declining with each younger generation over the past decade. 

“Data shows that people now spend 7-10 hours online,” says Tara Thiagarajan, Chief Scientist at Sapien Labs. “This leaves little time for in-person social engagement. Prior to the Internet, by the time someone turned 18, we estimate that they would likely have spent anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 hours interacting with peers and family in person.”

But today, Thiagarajan says the research shows the internet age has likely cut that range down to 1,500 to 5,000 hours. She says that social interaction teaches people how to read facial expressions, body language, physical touch, appropriate emotional responses, and conflict resolution, life skills that are crucial for socio-emotional development. Without these skills, people can feel detached from society and possibly harbor suicidal thoughts.

The report also revealed that over the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of each younger age group of adults fell much more dramatically. Across 34 countries where data was acquired, the decline, particularly for young adults (ages 18-24), exacerbates a trend that existed prior to the pandemic, but began after 2010, alongside the growth of smartphone use. Prior to 2010, studies showed that young adults had the highest levels of psychological wellbeing, but since then, the trend has been in the opposite direction.

The study outlines the key symptoms that impact the majority of young adults 18-24 or are most significantly amplified or deteriorated compared to older adults. These include:

  • Obsessive, strange or unwanted thoughts

  • Self-image, Self-worth and confidence

  • Feelings of being detached from reality

  • Relationships with others

  • Suicidal thoughts 

  • Fear and anxiety 

  • Feelings of sadness, distress or hopelessness.

These symptoms point to a decline of the Social Self, a composite metric of how we view ourselves and are able to form and maintain relationships – essentially a view of how an individual is integrated into the Social Fabric. This constellation of symptoms that dominate the mental profile of young adults do not map to any single disorder as defined by the DSM (which is the standard classification system for mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States).

“This highlights the magnitude and nature of the challenges of social isolation and digital interaction at the expense of in-person social interaction,” says Thiagarajan.

About Sapien Labs

Sapien Labs is a non-profit research organization focused on tracking changes in mind and brain with the evolution of society and the environment. The Human Brain Diversity Project works to understand the impacts of life experience and the environment on human brain physiology and in turn its consequences for cognitive and mental health outcomes. In addition to the Human Brain Diversity Project, Sapien Labs runs the Mental Health Million Project, which provides deep insights into how overall mental wellbeing has been changing across the globe, this year particularly in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic through its Mental State of the World Report.


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