Journalists quickly jumped to the conclusion that 23% of teenagers are addicted to their smartphones thanks to findings from a new study from King’s College London. But is this really the case? Are they really addicted?
To come to this conclusion, researchers at the university analyzed 41 studies published since 2011 that delved into smartphone usage by teenagers. Encompassing a total of 41,871 teenagers and young people, 30 of the studies came from Asia, nine from Europe and two from the US. In particular, they searched for indicators of problematic smartphone usage (PSU), regarded as any behavior linked to smartphone usage similar to patterns of addiction, such as feeling panicked or upset when the phone is unavailable, having difficulty in managing time spent on the phone and using their phones at the detriment of enjoying other activities.
Among the studies, the researchers found that PSU occurred among 10-30% of children and young people, averaging out at 23% across all studies. In particular, they found young women aged between 17 and 19 to be most affected by the condition.
To understand whether PSU could influence mental health outcomes, they then measured the association between poor mental health and smartphone usage, finding a consistent association between PSU and symptoms including depression, anxiety, stress and poor sleep quality.
Yet, does all this necessarily mean that a quarter of teenagers are unhealthily addicted to their smartphones? Perhaps not. This comes as the studies included in the research largely consisted of self-reported surveys. Although these could indicate high levels of smartphone usage, they would not necessarily translate into a pathological medical condition without further observation. Furthermore, although the researchers highlighted a correlation between phone use and poor mental health, the research was unable to highlight phone usage as a causational factor.
Co-senior author of the study, Dr Ncola Kalk said, “We don't know whether it is the smartphone itself that can be addictive or the apps that people use. Nevertheless, there is a need for public awareness around smartphone use in children and young people, and parents should be aware of how much time their children spend on their phones.”