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Suicidal thoughts, a detached sense of reality, and increased feelings of aggression towards others, alarming new research has sounded an alarm for parents thinking of giving their child a smartphone.

It’s a question that troubles many parents as their digitally native children grow older and inevitably ratchet up their requests, particularly as peer pressure levels rise at school.

However, findings in ‘The Mental State of the World in 2023’ published by the Global Mind Project from Sapien Labs which surveyed more than 500,000 people across 71 countries, suggest that the younger a child is given a smartphone the more likely they are to struggle with their mental health in later life.

The scientists behind the research assigned an ‘MHQ’ score to each respondent that puts individuals on a spectrum from Distressed to Thriving. Six ‘dimensional scores’ of Mood & Outlook, Social Self, Drive & Motivation, Adaptability & Resilience, Cognition, and Mind-Body Connection were also used to give a more detailed picture.

Smartphones and children

Their findings outlined several key areas of concern, the first relates to the age at which a child gets their first smartphone.

Across a sample of 27,969 respondents, it found that for today’s 18-24 year olds, who are the first generation to be born into a world of smartphones and social media, the younger they were when they got their first smartphone the worse their mental health outcomes in adulthood.

The authors wrote: “For example, 74% of female respondents aged 18-24 who got their first smartphone at age 6 had MHQ scores that fell within a Distressed or Struggling range.

“This decreased to 61% for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 10, and 52% for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 15.

“The impacts of owning a smartphone at a young age were especially pronounced for the dimension of Social Self and drove symptoms such as Suicidal thoughts, Feeling detached from reality and Feelings of aggression towards others.

“The age at which children first own a smartphone, and the way this consequently opens up their world to the internet and social media, therefore seems to be a key factor in declining mental well-being trends.”

Persistence of Post-Pandemic Mental Health Decline

The report highlights a continuous lack of improvement in global mental well-being since the dramatic decline during the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the easing of pandemic-related restrictions, the expected recovery in mental health has not materialized, indicating a potential new normal in diminished global mental well-being.

Mental well-being scores and country rankings have remained largely unchanged since 2021, with many Latin American and African countries ranking higher, and wealthier Anglosphere countries ranking lower in mental well-being.

UAE and Saudi Beat Global Norm (just) UK struggles

Across the 71 markets surveyed in the mega-study the average MHQ score was 65. In the GCC the researchers focused on the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The UAE scored 67, and the Kingdom a single point better on 68, putting both countries in the ‘Managing’ bracket, scores of 100+ were needed for ‘Succeeding’ and 150+ for ‘Thriving’. For both countries this represented a drop on last year’s ranking. In both countries, 25% of respondents said they were ‘Distressed / Struggling’, up on last year.

On a brighter note, both GCC nations scored higher than many when it came to ‘Adaptability & Resilience’ and ‘Drive & Motivation’.

One of the significant nations to struggle this year was the United Kingdom which came second to last with a MHQ score of just 49, a single digit above Uzbekistan. This put the UK in the ‘Enduring’ zone and 35% of respondents said they were ‘Distressed/Struggling’.

And, the findings suggest that higher wealth and economic development did not necessarily equate to better mental well-being, with Dominican Republic taking the top spot with a MHQ score of 91, followed by Sri Lanka with 89 and Tanzania with 88.

A New Unwelcome Norm

Tara Thiagarajan, Ph.D, Founder and Chief Scientist of Sapien Labs and Jennifer Newson, Ph.D, Lead Scientist, Cognitive and Mental Health, wrote in the report: “In focus this year is one key trend – that the dramatic decline in mental well-being that occurred between 2019 and 2020, and continued into 2021 through the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to persist with no sign of recovery.

“The expectation may have been that once the lockdowns lifted and the threat of COVID-19 subsided that our collective mental health would begin a recovery towards its pre-pandemic levels.

“However, the data across 64 countries argues otherwise – that the effects of diminished global mental well-being have become a new normal.”