Can you weigh in on the new study from Sapien Labs about mental health and age of first smartphone?

—Modern Mom

The report you’re referring to is here. In it, Sapien Labs, a pharmaceutical manufacturer known for psychological research, uses their massive global data set measuring mental well-being. They’ve used these data before to look at changes in mental well-being over time and across geographical space.

In the study, they survey almost 28,000 people between 18 and 24, across many countries, and ask about the age at which participants got their first smartphone. They then show that mental well-being in the 18-to-24-year-old range is lower for people who got a smartphone when they were younger. This correlation holds in both men and women, across all regions and various mental well-being metrics.

The paper addresses an incredibly important question that I think is understudied. In my view, although the scope of the data here is impressive, I’m not confident that one can draw any causal conclusions. The evidence in the paper is just a correlation — there are actually no adjustments made for differences in family demographics within people, or even for country-level differences within regions. The authors state that they think it’s unlikely other family differences would drive this result, but I cannot see how they can conclude that. The bottom line is this data is impressive but the causal claims are poor.

Having said that, I do think we have some better data that would suggest that social media exposure in particular could have negative mental health consequences (like this paper about Facebook). It feels urgent to me that we learn more about such a link. The new paper might be right — but we need good evidence to guide parents well.

If you want more, this Techno Sapiens article from last week is excellent.