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Why Can’t We Put Down Our Phones?

A U of T Mississauga study finds that problematic smartphone use is increasing worldwide – especially among younger women

In the shadow of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza; on a sheep station in the Australian outback; along the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter; near the CN Tower, the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa; at Everest base camp and on the rim of the Grand Canyon: almost every location on Earth has become a backdrop to the single, unifying sight of human beings staring at their smartphones.

The global ubiquity of these devices means few societies are free from the risk of smartphone addiction and related problematic behaviour. A groundbreaking Canadian-led study recently revealed that smartphone addiction is a growing issue around the world, and younger women are at greatest risk.

Researchers at the University of Toronto, with colleagues at McGill and Harvard universities, surveyed more than 50,000 smartphone users in 195 countries, allowing for comparisons among countries and cultures. The data provide new, deeper insight into trends that previously were only partially documented and understood.

“There was an intuition that problematic smartphone use was increasing around the world, but we didn’t have evidence in the literature for it,” says Dasha Sandra, a master’s student in psychological clinical sciences at U of T Scarborough and co-author of the study, which was published in November in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

She and lead author Jay Olson had previously done meta-analysis of existing usage studies, but the methods of acquiring the data weren’t sufficiently consistent. Olson, a postdoctoral fellow in U of T Mississauga’s psychology department, used a separate study on creativity to find participants for smartphone research, which, he says, helped generate a less biased sample. “People were there to do something else, not to assess their smartphone use.”

With more than 100 survey respondents from each of 41 countries, the study had sufficient data to confirm previous findings — that more women than men experience problematic smartphone behaviour — and to raise interesting questions.

I was a little surprised at how consistently younger women reported being more addicted to their smartphones. In almost every country, the trend was exactly the same.”

– Dasha Sandra, master’s student in psychological clinical sciences, U of T Scarborough

“Other studies have found that women tend to use smartphones for more social purposes, and are also more sensitive to peer evaluations,” Sandra says. “Our results are what you would expect to find from the literature. But I was a little surprised at how consistently younger women reported being more addicted to their smartphones. In almost every country, the trend was exactly the same.”

Other trends had greater variation — problematic use dropped off with age in most places, but starting at different ages and diminishing at different speeds in various parts of the world. National averages on the addiction scale tended to be highest in Southeast Asia and lowest in Europe (with Canada close to the middle), which the researchers theorize might be partly related to cultural differences and how countries acquired the technology. More individualistic societies tended to have lower rates of problematic use than those with a greater focus on communities and social groups.

“It was surprising how much this social cohesion plays a role in being addicted to your phone. It’s possibly because people spend more time socializing on their phones as a way to keep up with others and to understand where their social group is,” Sandra said.

(While the researchers sometimes use the word “addiction,” they say “problematic use” is the more accurate way to describe the issue. They also point out that compulsive smartphone behaviour differs from a chemical addiction. Olson says the field is still debating whether it should be called a behavioural addiction, like gambling.)

Olson, Sandra and their collaborators used an established assessment known as the “Smartphone Addiction Scale” in their survey. Respondents rate how strongly they agree with statements like, “I feel impatient and fretful when I am not holding my smartphone” and “I would never give up using my smartphone even if my daily life were greatly affected by it.”

The scale focuses less on how much people use their phones and more on the question of whether that usage interferes with users’ lives, such as getting in the way of work, studies or social interactions.

“It does not look at screen time on its own,” Olson says. “It makes sense when you think about that. Take a journalist – some have to be on their phone eight hours a day at work tracking stories and contacting people. That’s not necessarily a problem.”

As long as a person can put their phone away and not think about it, extensive usage doesn’t qualify as problematic. “Compare that to somebody who uses their phone for even half an hour before bed, doom-scrolling, getting all this bright-light exposure that negatively affects their sleep. This is more problematic usage,” explains Olson.

There are correlations between smartphone addiction and depression, anxiety and loneliness, but relatively little research looking at the causal relationships between them.”

– Jay Olson, postdoctoral fellow in psychology, U of T Mississauga

While the study closes many gaps in international trends, it also points to new research avenues.

“I want to continue this for 10 years so we can have a robust idea of the growth or the change in problematic smartphone use. We know that it increased quite a bit during the pandemic. Is that going to eventually plateau?” Olson says. “We’re also hoping that we can use the data to adapt or develop targeted interventions for different demographics, whether it’s age, gender or country.”

Interventions might also be based on specific forms of problematic behaviour. One of the most commonly agreed-to statements on the survey was “I use my smartphone longer than I intend.” People with this problem might require different solutions than those who, say, identify more with the statement, “I feel pain in my wrists or at the back of my neck while using a smartphone.”

Interventions can include reducing notifications, keeping the phone outside the bedroom at night, limiting the time or times-of-day for certain apps, or other behavioural and technological modifications to encourage healthy usage.

This survey also taps into broader questions about the relationships between smartphone use and well-being.

“There are correlations between smartphone addiction and depression, anxiety and loneliness, but relatively little research looking at the causal relationships between them,” Olson says. “I want to understand the causal well-being link, which is really unknown at this point, and then try to find ways to reduce smartphone use and have better well-being at the same time.”

Data collection for this study is complete, but you can still complete the Smartphone Addiction Scale survey, at the researchers’ website, to assess your personal risk of problematic smartphone usage relative to others in your demographic, find evidence-based strategies for reducing problematic smartphone use, and possibly contribute data to future research projects.

If you do the Smartphone Addiction Scale survey, share your score with us below, and whether you were above or below average for your demographic. It’s anonymous.

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  1. One Response to “ Why Can’t We Put Down Our Phones? ”

  2. Waldemar_W._Koczkodaj says:

    Our innovative approach in:
    indicates that the addiction problem is far more serious than is generally believed. Simply, self-assessment is inaccurate. It is best illustrated by asking an alcoholic if they are an alcoholic. The outcome of such an assessment is poor, since hardly any addict sees their disorder as a problem. We are prepared to analyze data and publish with any U of T researchers.