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Public health crisis: 25% of youth addicted to phones, often with mental health problems

Public health crisis: 25% of youth addicted to phones, often with mental health problems
[Photo: natureaddict/Pixabay]

Researchers put out an SOS call today about youth and smartphone use: the largest study of its kind shows that one in four display phone-addiction behavior.

Up until now, researchers had suspected a public health disaster brewing between teens and their phones, but most studies were limited, with findings that sometimes contradicted each other.

“Problematic smartphone use poses a different and arguably much bigger public health problem than substance abuse or even internet gaming,” write the authors, who found that troubling phone habits correlate with a raft of mental health problems, including higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and poor sleep quality, as well as other addictive behaviors such as substance use, internet addiction, and compulsive buying.

The review of 41 studies of 41,871 youth, published today in BMC Psychiatry, shows that 23% of young people engage in dysfunctional phone habits that cause such problems as neglect of other activities or anxiety. Most overusage did not come from gaming but from social networking—specifically “using phones to gain peer acceptance” and to a lesser extent, long hours of TV watching. These troubling phone habits were most common among 17-19 year olds, who are often (but not always) girls.

The good news: youth who are likely to overuse their phones are somewhat predictable and therefore potentially identifiable as preteens, long before their bad habits begin. They tend to be lonely, suffer low self-esteem, or have insecure attachment.

“Those at risk have similar traits to those at risk of other addictions. Like alcohol, smartphone use is socially acceptable and widely available,” write the authors, who call for more awareness among doctors, teachers, and parents that excessive or nighttime phone use can lead to poor well-being and mental health declines.

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