Neuroticism blamed for smartphone addiction: Deakin study

Media release
07 May 2018

A third of young Australian smartphone users have reported feeling anxious if unable to regularly check their phones, according to a newly published Deakin University study.

The study from Deakin's School of Psychology of nearly 400 undergraduate university students looked at the extent of problematic smartphone use and what personality traits put people most at risk. The results were recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Lead researcher and psychology lecturer Dr Sharon Horwood said the findings were surprising, and have added support to suggestions that problematic smartphone use is becoming an increasingly prevalent public health issue.

The study also found:

  • 40 per cent of people surveyed felt lost without their phone;
  • 34 per cent lost sleep due to the time spent on their phone; and
  • 54 per cent found themselves occupied on their phone when they should be doing other things, and it caused problems.

"We can think of problematic smartphone use as someone who has started to use their phone compulsively and where that compulsive use has started to impact on their daily functioning. That could be their productivity, social relationships, physical health, or emotional well-being," Dr Horwood said.

"There's no doubt that smartphones have changed the way we do things, and given that around 88 per cent of Australian have smartphones, we must feel as though we get something good from using them.

"However when usage becomes excessive it can result in a range of negative outcomes including low mood, reduced physical fitness, sleep deprivation, and poorer academic performance.

"One theory for why we can become overly dependent on our smartphone is an emerging construct referred to as fear of missing out, or FoMO, which represents a desire to constantly stay online and connected via social media platforms. FoMO has been established as a significant risk factor for the development of problematic smartphone use.

"Another factor, and this is an important one, is that smartphones and the apps that we use on them are designed to entice us to use them, and keep using them, for as long as possible. They are deliberately addictive devices, even though we may not think of them that way."

But in a surprising result, Dr Horwood said her study's findings did not necessarily lay all of the blame of problematic smartphone use at the feet of oft-criticised social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

"Our study showed that habitual use, that is mindless checking out of habit rather than need, and entertainment use, for example watching videos or browsing the web, was more highly correlated with problematic use than using social media via the phone," she said.

"That's not to say social media is blameless, it still correlates with problematic use, it's just not the whole story.

"While we found that females and younger adults were somewhat more likely to report problematic smartphone usage, and these are two groups who tend to be bigger users of social media, it was actually personality that was a stronger predictor of problematic smartphone use than these demographic variables."

Personality testing of study participants showed that higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of conscientiousness predicted greater problematic smartphone usage.

"One explanation could be that individuals high in neuroticism tend to rely on their smartphones to obtain social and emotional reassurance from relationships, whereas conscientious people are characterised by a willingness to delay short-term gratification in order to achieve other goals in work, education, health and wellbeing.

"The thing to keep in mind is that broad personality traits such as neuroticism and conscientiousness influence the way we think and see the world generally, not just in relation to how we use technology."

Dr Horwood is now hoping to turn this research to children and adolescents, and is seeking approval for a study to not only measure self-reported smartphone use, but also use an app on participant's phones to see how much time they are actually using them.

"Smart phones are a comparatively new thing, only about 10 years old, but there has been an unprecedented uptake of technology when it comes to these devices," she said.

"The portability of a smartphone means it's something we haven't seen before in terms of our ability to have unlimited access to screen time. Previously we were restricted to fixed screens such as televisions or PCs.

"Right now in Australia about 94 per cent of teens have smart phones, and recent research shows teenagers spend an average of 44 hours per week in front of screens, with primary school age kids almost 31 hours. So we really need to better understand if there are socio-emotional health implications associated with high levels of screen time."

To find out more about Dr Horwood's smartphone research, visit http://www.blackscreens-research.com.

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