Objectively measured digital technology use during the COVID-19 pandemic: Impact on depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among young adults


Background: Research suggests that the disruptions introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to increased psychological distress and time spent on digital technology among young people, thus intensifying pre-pandemic concerns regarding the putative effects of digital technology use on mental health. To robustly examine whether increases in digital technology use are associated with increases in psychological distress during the pandemic it is crucial to (1) collect objective data on digital technology use and (2) account for potential confounding caused by pandemic-related stressors. Methods: We conducted a four-wave panel study of U.S. young adults (N=384; Mage = 24.5 ± 5.1; 57% female) from August-November of 2020. Participants provided screenshots of their iPhone “Screen Time” application and completed measures assessing current mental health status (depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation) and pandemic-related impacts on well-being. We used random-intercept multilevel models to examine the within- and between-person associations between mental health, objective digital technology use, and pandemic-related stressors. Results: Multilevel analyses revealed that none of the objectively-measured digital technology use variables were positively associated with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation at the within- or between-person levels. In contrast, pandemic-related impacts on mental health had by far the largest effects on depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Limitations: The convenience-based sample and use of single-item measures of pandemic-related impacts are limitations of the study. Conclusions: Current speculations about the direct harms of digital technology use on mental health may be unfounded and risk diverting attention from a more likely cause: pandemic-related distress

Journal of Affective Disorders