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So, are phones good or bad for sleep?

Do you think smartphone use is bad for sleep quality?

Well…you are wrong. Maybe. Depending on how you answered. If you said “yes, Alex, of course smartphone use is bad for sleep quality,” then my statement holds. You’re wrong.

Okay, also, still maybe wrong because I haven’t really seen many other (if any) articles that talk about how smartphone use could actually be beneficial toward sleep. Most say that smartphone use usually isn’t good. But, let me talk about this article (citation at the end) for just a bit, and let’s see what you conclude by the end of it.

I’ll start with a story.

You’re excited to be able to go on a date with this person you’ve been talking to for a few weeks now. The timing is right, they are putting in effort to see you, you have messed this up…yet.

You go out, meet them, and like things are pleasant. But, you find that you aren’t able to have a smooth conversation; at least not as smooth as you were hoping. Is it your fault? Is it theirs? Do we not have chemistry?

These are perhaps some questions that arise. A few hours pass, and they say some nice things about how they enjoyed their time and how they will keep making time for this to see where it goes.

But something is just off.

You say bye and part ways. You’re at home now and you’re trying to weigh the positives and negatives about the date. It’s leaving you feeling a little empty and unsure about yourself and where you stand with them.

You try to sleep, but find you are anxious and stressed. The next day you are feeling down and not quite like yourself. You just weren’t able to sleep well and kept waking up thinking about the date.

You go about your day and your normal routine: work, eat, workout, talk to your parents, and play some trumpet. But now, you find that you want to go on your phone. Maybe you play a game. Maybe you text some friends. Maybe you look up Reddit posts about others in a similar situation as you.

Whatever it is, you try going on your phone more and you actually end up feeling less stressed. With the less stress, you find you sleep better. Your mood gets lifted and you’re not as depressed anymore.

Do you think this is possible? Well, that is the argument that is happening in the article I am covering this week. Rather than smartphone use being a distraction or impeding in our ability to sleep, smartphone use actually ends up relating to less stress (as well as less anxiety, better sleep quality, and less depressive symptoms).

Not surprisingly, the better sleep people got, the less anxious, stressed, and depressed they were as well.

Pretty cool so far right? Well, let me ruin that a bit (but I promise to also come back to the positive of this finding by the end of this article).

So, although the authors want to argue for this idea that smartphone use is therapeutic and ends up decreasing depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as increase sleep quality, I am not completely on board just yet.

Here’s why:

1. It only had 92 medical students that were White and in Serbia. That’s not to say that these aren’t people and their experiences don’t matter. They do. But their experiences do not represent all people’s experiences. It’s a very specific time and with a generation that grew up with smartphones (on average, participants were 21 years old).

2. We have no idea what they were doing on their smartphones. Were they texting? Friends? Family? Romantic partners? Were they taking care of work, maybe emails or studying, or even listening to lecture recordings? Were they watching something entertaining or reading an insightful article? Were they scrolling Instagram? Were they connecting with people or being passive? There are so many things that could have happened, but we don’t know what actually happened. Maybe people that use their phone more often have more diversity of experiences. Maybe people that use their phone more are more extraverted and have more friends. Maybe phone use is completely different in Serbia compared to the US. We really don’t know.

3. Smartphone use also coincides with more internet addiction. That doesn’t seem like a good thing. Does that mean there is some optimal amount of phone use that is beneficial and then after some point it becomes harmful? Is some internet addiction good because it actually allows you to be less lonely and more connected to social networks? Or maybe people learn more on the internet through videos on, for example, YouTube or TikTok? Anything I would have to say would be a guess.

4. There also isn’t enough evidence for me to believe there is a causal relationship here. What does that mean? That means, the authors want to say smartphone use causes less stress, but I don’t think they can. Other researchers might disagree with me. The researchers in this case measured smartphone use for 2 weeks and then related their use to their anxiety, stress, sleep quality, and depression in the 3rd week. In some ways, this is great and is the exact thing we need. In other ways, it’s a brief stint and we have no idea how well it holds up across time and there isn’t enough other evidence to calm my worries about the various other variables out there that could be explaining these results (e.g., the stuff about if these people are also just more extraverted or maybe they are using their phones to talk to friends and set up in person hang outs which would also likely decrease anxiety, stress, depression, and increase sleep quality).

Aside from that, I think this study is still really good! It is something that really demonstrates the idea that we don’t know what we are talking about and nothing really generalizes to everyone. Smartphone use can be good…it can be bad…it can be nothing…it can be all-consuming. What is helpful for one, may be damaging for another. What is therapeutic for one is also potentially disruptive for another. And all of this depends on how people decide to use the technology that is out there.

Smartphone use is not the same from person to person. Are you using it during the day? At night right before sleeping? Do you do that instead of other fulfilling things in your life? Is it the source of your fulfillment? It can be a lot of different things.

So, what is it for you? Where do you fall in this? Would it help or hurt YOU? That is the most important thing.

Until next time.


Citation: Stanković, M., Nešić, M., Čičević, S., & Shi, Z. (2021). Association of smartphone use with depression, anxiety, stress, sleep quality, and internet addiction. Empirical evidence from a smartphone application. Personality and individual differences, 168, 110342.

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