In the technological age that we live in smartphone use is extremely prevalent across the world with almost three quarters of Americans and half of the world’s population owning such a device.
There are many benefits to smartphone use such as increasing productivity in the workplace and connectivity between people. However many users engage in behaviours Dr Elhai refers to as ‘problematic smartphone use’.
The term refers to excessive use of a smartphone which is combined with dependent behaviours that are associated with people suffering from substance abuse – such as withdrawal symptoms when not using their phone and functional impairment.
As ‘problematic smartphone use’ is clearly a worry in today’s society Elhai and colleagues looked to investigate what antecedents there could be for such behaviours which may provide a gateway to helping people who engage is these problematic behaviours.
This research collected participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (Mturk) internet labor market which is often used for social science research. This group of participants has its advantages because of their frequent use of smartphones which is key to investigating the purpose of this study.
308 North American/English speaking individuals completed a ‘Process and social usage scale’ which measured their agreement with several items relating to smartphone use.
Process items include behaviours relating to consuming news, relaxation or entertainment. Whereas social items refer to social networking and messaging behaviours.
To assess ‘problematic smartphone use’ the Smartphone addiction scale (SAS) was used which measured the participant’s agreement with statements relating to when smartphones: are used, are not used (withdrawal), disturb daily life, tolerance, overuse and overuse in digital relationships.
Once self-reported smartphone use and smartphone addiction had been assessed the participants were asked to complete Depression and anxiety scales to assess the relationship between scores on all three tests.
The results showed that individuals showing depressive and anxious traits were related to greater use of smartphones for news and entertainment consumption but not for social use. This suggests that psychological disorders are associated with specific use of smartphones, which was also the case for ‘problematic smartphone use’.
These findings are supported by the world we see around us. Anxious people tend to avoid social interaction when these interactions could be stressful and therefore prefer online social interaction to face to face communication.
However despite this preference, avoidance behaviours still occur as there is a clear preference for using smartphones for process use and not social use – as shown in this study by Elhai and colleagues.
Dr Elhai believed that even though process use may alleviate anxiety to some extent, caution must be taken to not become socially disengaged as this can lead to physical and mental health problems – which can occur through excessive use of smartphones.
Individuals who showed depressive traits in this study also reported less social use of smartphones which is consistent with previous research suggesting social media can benefit one’s overall mental wellbeing.
Like those with anxiety, depressed individuals may avoid social interaction which in turn reduces the amount of social support from their environment they receive and therefore potentially increasing the frequency and intensity of one’s depression.
Whilst excessive smartphone use can be detrimental to a person’s health, it can be seen that there are clear benefits to sufferers of depression and anxiety when using their smartphone for social use.
However care is needed when considering the amount of time spent on social media as research by Vannucci suggests social media can increase anxiety if too much time is spent on social media and people begin to compare themselves to others.
As the relationship between ‘problematic smartphone use’ and process and social use is unclear Elhai suggested future research could assess this relationship at a more granular level.
Despite mixed findings considering ‘problematic smartphone use’, Elhai and colleagues found a mediated relationship between anxiety and problematic smartphone use.
With anxious individuals preferring using smartphones for news consumption and surfing the internet – the amount of time doing so could mean anxious individuals progress from excessive use of smartphones to showing ‘problematic smartphone behaviours’ and therefore dependence behaviours.
This finding ties in with Vanucci’s whereby increased use of online platforms can lead to further mental health issues.
With anxiety and depression considered to have a close relationship, Elhai provides further evidence for this with factors such as ‘problematic smartphone use’ and overuse of smartphones showing relationships with both disorders.
The participants who showed less depression and anxiety were more likely to use social features on their smartphones which increases the meaningfulness of their time spend on their smartphone.
Unlike those suffering from depression and anxiety, who use their smartphones less productively in terms of viewing non-social media.
However the researchers did note that there are some limitations with the study carried out.
These are that a sample was conveniently chosen which may not be generalizable to the world’s population and that data was collected at a point in time, meaning a causal relationship can’t be identified.
Also some features of a smartphone can’t be put into a box of ‘process use’ and ‘social use’ as there can be crossovers such as gaming which can be entertainment and social through multiplayer games. Likewise for social media that show news stories.
Therefore future research should explore smartphone usage that can fall into both the process and social use categories. Do combined usage further increase depression and anxiety or help reduce symptoms?
Despite the limitations there is a serious message to be taken from this study as the findings suggest anxious and depressed patients should plan more enjoyable and social activities aligned with their psychological treatments. Such activities could be assisted by smartphones due to their many social benefits.
As a result treatments can be designed to promote the positive aspects of smartphones and intelligent use for those with depression and anxiety.
As we live in a world obsessed with smartphones, guidance on using such devices is becoming a much needed part of treating depression and anxiety moving forward.
Elhai, J, D., Levine, J, C., Dvorak, J, D., Hall, B, J. 2017. Non-social features of smartphone use are most related to depression, anxiety and problematic smartphone use. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 75-82
Vannucci, A., Flannery, K, M., McCauley Ohannessian, C. 2016. Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults. Journal of Affective Disorders, 207, 163-166