Children who had access to smartphones at younger ages have worse mental health outcomes as adults, a new study found.

A Sapien Labs study last month of 27,969 global members of Generation Z found that the sooner a child was given access to a smartphone, the more likely it is they would have mental health problems in the future.


“Kids flourish most engaging the real world — family and friends in person, exercise, volunteering, and religious activities," University of Virginia sociologist and senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies W. Bradford Wilcox told the Washington Examiner. "They are more likely to flounder when they get caught in the virtual worlds offered by smartphones. "

The study notes that with each new generation — Gen Z being the first to be confronted with essentially unadulterated access to the internet — "overall mental wellbeing is systematically lower."

Pew Research data cited in the report show 96% of Americans aged 18-29 own a smartphone, and 48% report they are on the internet "almost constantly." Moreover, 2021 data showed that, in America, 31% of 8-year-olds, 71% of 12-year-olds, and 91% of 14-year-olds own a smartphone.

Estimates also suggest the 13-18-year-old age group spends an average of 8.4 hours looking at a screen per day, while 8-12-year-olds spend 5.3 hours doing the same.

With the overwhelming level of youth smartphone usage, Sapien's study suggests the older a child is when receiving their first smartphone, the better their mental health will be once they reach adulthood.

The pattern was present for both men and women but was much steeper for women. Seventy-four percent of women who received their first smartphone at the age of 6 fell within the mentally "distressed" or "struggling" range, compared to 46% who first received the device at the age of 18.

Mental health outcomes improved as the age of first introduction increased. For girls who received their first phone at 10, 61% fell within the negative range, and 52% of 15-year-olds fell within the same range.

For boys, 42% who received the phone at 6 had mental health issues, which decreased to 36% for those who recieved the phone at 18.

Adults 45 and older who lived much more of their lives before smartphones came online only fell into the range at a rate of 14%.

The presence of all top five mental health problems, such as suicidal thoughts or intentions, aggression toward others, and the sense of being detached from reality, dramatically decreased as the age of first introduction increased.

For both men and women, suicidal thoughts or intentions saw the largest drop when persons were introduced to smartphones at an older age.

One's self-perception was also affected by smartphone introduction.

Using a metric the study calls the "social self," which measures "how we see ourselves and relate to others" and "positive integration in the social world," researchers found the older a person was when first receiving a smartphone, the better perception they had of themselves. The improvement was yet again more significant for women than men.

"The virtual world eliminates important and essential enabling sensory modalities of human social interaction and bonding and is not an equivalent substitute," the study states. "It can also create a distorted sense of one’s social world that exacerbates its effects."

"Together, these findings also describe a progressive shift of the global population toward one that has diminished social capacity and resilience, and that harbors more frequent suicidal thoughts and feelings of aggression towards others, as the average age of first smartphone acquisition becomes younger," it continues.

This study coincides with multiple reports on loneliness and particularly female mental health problems as they relate to social media use.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 57% of teenage girls reported feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and 30% seriously considered suicide.

Likewise, the U.S. surgeon general recently came out with a health advisory highlighting an "epidemic of loneliness" and emphasizing the importance of human social interaction.

The connection of serious mental health problems to internet and social media use, particularly as a young person, has prompted Congress and some states to consider measures giving parents greater supervision over their child's internet usage.


There have been three bills introduced to Congress to protect children from the harms of social media. Similarly, a growing number of states, including Utah, Virginia, and Louisiana, have enacted measures to keep children from pornographic content online with age verification.

Wilcox told the Washington Examiner the mounting evidence should encourage more movement on protections across the country, saying, "This new research provides yet more evidence in favor of the notion that parents and policymakers should be doing all they can to delay kids’ access to smartphones.”

Tags: Mental Health, Family, Technology, Health

Original Author: Breccan F. Thies

Original Location: Youth smartphone use connected to future mental health problems: Study

2023-06-05T07:28:12Z dg43tfdfdgfd