Experts argue whether one-in-four young people are #addicted to their phones

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  Last updated December 2, 2019 at 3:43 pm


A study has found smartphone use could be linked to mental health issues in younger people – but experts are cautious to draw conclusions.

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The study found problematic behaviours include feeling upset when the phone is unavailable, letting phone use affect other activities and having difficulty just putting it down.

Why This Matters: They’re a huge part of our lives, but we need to be mindful of their impact on our mental health.

One in four children and young people use their smartphones in a way that mirrors behavioural addiction, according to UK researchers who say this problematic usage could be linked to depression, anxiety, stress and poor sleep quality.

The researchers looked at 41 studies of almost 42,000 young people published between 2011 and 2017, when smartphone use became more widespread.

Across the studies, researchers found between 14-31 per cent of kids and young adults experienced problematic smartphone behaviours similar to other addictions, such as feeling upset when the phone is unavailable, letting phone use affect other activities and having difficulty just putting it down.

Also: Smartphone addiction literally changes teenagers’ brains

But don’t worry, parents: there’s no need to snatch away your kids’ tiny screens just yet as there’s still much to take into account, according to independent researchers.

There is no single definition of problematic smartphone use

Amy Orben from the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study, told the UK SMC that she’s cautious to draw conclusions based on this review, as even the study authors acknowledged that all studies were of poor to moderate quality.

“Bad ingredients make bad soup,” Orben says.

Meta-analyses and systematic reviews operate on a ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ principle: if the studies forming the basis of the review are low in quality the review itself will also be of low quality.”

One reason for this low-quality data, according to the University of Cambridge’s Sam Chamberlain, is that there is no single definition of “problematic smartphone usage”.

Cape Town, South Africa, Students on their phones in class

“One challenge for the field, in light of this valuable meta-analysis, is that ‘Problematic Smartphone Use‘ is not consistently defined. There are various rating scales, with different cut-offs and criteria, some of which have not been subjected to sufficient clinical (and other) validation,” Chamberlain explains.

This lack of consistency is important, according to Orben, because it makes the data more difficult to compare, and conclusions are harder to draw.

“They are likely to be comparing apples to oranges,” Orben says.

“This makes the conclusion that 1 in 4 children are affected by an undefined measure of problematic smartphone use very problematic in itself.”

Mental health issues from smartphone use isn’t black and white

The data was further weakened by the way it was collected, as the review search terms included words such as “behaviour” and “addictive”, which is more likely to find research that draws associations between addictive behaviour and with smartphone use, rather than studies that found no association.

The increase in smartphone use in young people over the past decade has coincided with a rise in poor mental health in the same age group, according to the study authors.

Also: Millennial Mental Health: The Stats Behind the Story

And while this review is a valuable contribution to a larger field, researchers seem to agree that the situation is not black and white, and that smartphone use does not necessarily lead to mental health issues.

“It has been shown previously that smartphone effects are not a one-way street, but that mood can impact the amount of smartphone use as well, making these correlations bidirectional in nature,” Orben says.

The results need to be replicated before taken for fact

So if the data is weak, what can we take from this review?

According to the authors, the study highlights the need for people to be aware of their smartphone use, and its association with mental health issues.

Independent researchers also point out that the study is a valuable contribution to the body of research, as it highlights the need for more consistent, long-term and in-depth research into such a relevant and important aspect of modern life.

“The finding that Problematic Smartphone Use was associated with depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties, highlights the importance of further research to establish whether these relationships are potentially causally linked,” Chamberlain says.

Oberon agrees: “Overall, this study is a welcome addition to the literature which has been rapidly increasing in volume and is in need of careful synthesis. However, limits in its methodology means that the conclusions reached … should be considered and replicated in other reviews before such results are taken as fact.”

You can read the UK SMC expert reaction here.

If you, or someone you know needs help with mental health, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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