Study: Smartphone use linked to mental health distress

By Susan Gonsalves
October 1st, 2017

College students with high smartphone use report higher levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness, poorer sleep quality and difficulties fulfilling their obligations as a student, according to a study at Assumption College, a small liberal arts school located in Worcester, Mass.

Lead authors Adam Volungis, Ph.D. and Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., emphasized that while the research shows a correlation between phone use and indicators of general symptoms of distress, no causal link was concluded.

One hundred and fifty college students, 83 percent of whom were female, filled out a series of questionnaires using a range of assessment tools such as the smartphone addiction scale, UCLA loneliness scale, Pittsburgh sleep quality index and others.

The average age of the student was 19.28 years and the ethnic breakdown included 80 percent-white; 7.4 percent-African American; 4.7 percent Latino; 4.7 percent Asian; and 2.7 percent, bi-racial.

Volungis said that although the study lends credence to the idea that too much time on a technological device can be unhealthy, he cautioned about lumping smartphone use into the same category as drug or alcohol addictions.

However, the study is one of the first to use scales and indexes to correlate smartphone use to various forms of mental health distress.

The researchers were not surprised that high smartphone use made students prone to lower levels of social and emotional well-being.

However, Volungis said that he did not expect to see a consistent link “across the domains of mental health function.”

He hopes this type of information could encourage college campuses to screen for smartphone overuse at counseling centers where it is commonplace to screen for mental health issues as well as substance and alcohol abuse.

Although the smartphone use is not “causing,” the mental health issues, it could be “exacerbating feelings of distress,” he said. When appropriate, psychologists and other mental health professionals could factor it into their assessment and treatment plans.

Kalpidou said that students on average spend six hours per day on their smartphones. She feels that amount would be higher if they were not attending classes where phones are sometimes prohibited.

She and her colleague emphasized that the phone’s appeal is in its applications – videos, emails, texts, etc. – and not in the device itself.

Although this particular study did not delve into what exactly the students were engaged in doing on their phones, there is research out there that uses tracking software to determine the frequency certain applications are accessed.

And, texting appears to be the application of choice, with 100 texts per day on average not unusual.

Both Kalpidou and Volungis said that they would be interested in doing a longitudal study in that area. They would also like to have a more diverse group of students to evaluate.

Kalpidou also noted a desire to look at the correlations that may exist with middle and high school age children as subjects.

Volungis, an assistant professor of psychology and Kalpidou, an associate professor of psychology, both at Assumption College, collaborated on the project with Colleen Popores, B.S. and Mark Joyce, B.A., graduate research assistants.

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