In a new survey of 3,425 university students, one in five respondents said they engaged in problematic smartphone use which in turn was tied to lower grades, mental health problems, and a higher number of sexual partners.

Previous research has linked excessive smartphone use to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and problems with self-esteem.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, a research team from the University of Chicago, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Minnesota developed the Health and Addictive Behaviours Survey to assess mental health and well-being in a large sample of university students.

The researchers used the survey to analyze the impact of smartphone use on university students. Just over a third (3,425) of students invited to take the test responded.

The self-reporting survey consisted of 156 questions. Based on their responses, the students were given a score ranging from 10 to 60, with a score of 32 and above being defined as problematic smartphone use. This definition was based on a threshold recommended previously in clinical validation studies using the scale. The researchers found that one in five (20%) of respondents reported problematic smartphone use. Problematic use was also more prevalent among female students: 64% of all problematic users were women.

Problematic smartphone use may include the following: excessive use; trouble concentrating in class or at work due to smartphone use; feeling fretful or impatient without their smartphone; missing work due to smartphone use; and experiencing physical consequences of excessive use, such as light-headedness or blurred vision.

Importantly, the researchers found a link between problematic smartphone use and lower grade point averages (academic achievement).

“Although the effect of problematic smartphone use on grade point averages was relatively small, it’s worth noting that even a small negative impact could have a profound effect on an individual’s academic achievement and then on their employment opportunities in later life,” said Professor Jon Grant from the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

While students reporting problematic smartphone use were more likely to be less sexually active than their peers (70.9% compared to 74%), the proportion of students reporting two or more sexual partners in the past 12 months was significantly higher among problem users: 37.4% of sexually-active problematic smartphone users compared with 27.2% sexually-active students who reported no problem use.

The prevalence of six or more sexual partners was more than double among sexually-active problematic smartphone users (6.8% compared to 3.0%).

“Smartphones can help connect people and help people feel less isolated, and our findings suggest that they may act as an avenue for sexual contact, whether through sustained partnerships or more casual sex,” said Dr. Sam Chamberlain, Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust.

In addition, alcohol misuse was much higher in those with problematic cellphone use compared to the control group. No significant link was found between phone use and any other form of substance abuse or addiction, however.

In terms of other mental health problems, the researchers found that problematic smartphone use was significantly associated with lower self-esteem, ADHD, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, mirroring similar findings elsewhere.

“It’s easy to think of problematic smartphone use as an addiction, but if it was that simple, we would expect it to be associated with a wide range of substance misuse problems, especially in such a large sample, but this does not seem to be the case,” said Chamberlain.

“One possible explanation for these results is that people develop excessive cellphone use because of other mental health difficulties. For example, people who are socially isolated, those who experience depression or anxiety, or those who have attention problems (as in ADHD) may be more prone to excessive smartphone use, as well as to using alcohol.”

“Smartphone use likely develops earlier in life — on average — than alcohol use problems and so it is unlikely that alcohol use itself leads to smartphone use.”

The study does not establish cause and effect. In other words, the researchers cannot say that problematic smartphone use leads to mental health issues or vice versa.

In addition, the team points out that the effect sizes were generally small, and that more research is needed into the positive and negative effects of cellphone use and mental health, including how this changes over time.

Source: University of Cambridge