World-first study shows link between phone use and lower wellbeing

Media release
27 March 2019

A world-first Deakin study has confirmed what many have wondered for some time: problematic smartphone use is associated with lower wellbeing.

The study, recently published in Computers in Human Behavior, is the first to thoroughly evaluate how smartphone use is associated with measures of subjective and psychological wellbeing.

The survey of more than 500 Victorian university students found problematic smartphone use was associated with feelings of negative emotions, lack of control, a reduced sense of purpose in life, and a reduced ability to resist social pressure.

Lead researcher Dr Sharon Horwood, a lecturer in Deakin's School of Psychology, said the data showed habitual smartphone use and entertainment use - using the phone to relax, escape and pass time - were the best predictors of lower wellbeing.

"There's a constant stream of news and entertainment in our life now, and if that content is not necessarily positive it might be contributing to technological overload or techno-exhaustion," Dr Horwood said.

"While there has been some analysis of smartphone use and subjective wellbeing, this study goes into much greater depth.

"Past research has examined wellbeing in terms of life satisfaction and whether people tend to experience more positive emotions than negative emotions.

"This research offers a more complete picture of what makes the 'good life' including positive social relationships, a sense of personal growth, autonomy, and having a sense of control over one's life.

"While we found that smartphone use is unrelated to people's overall life satisfaction, it is associated with mood and these broader indicators of human flourishing.

"Wellbeing is about feeling satisfied with your life, managing day-to-day activities, and positive relationships. We found that problematic smart phone use impacts on all those things."

Dr Horwood said the four main areas of wellbeing which negatively related to problematic smartphone use included how much control people felt they had over their use; environmental mastery, whether smartphone use interferes with a person's day-to-day life, including job and study; whether the phone gets in the way of positive relationships with others; and whether smart phone use was a panacea for boredom and lack of personal growth.

"The question is, does using your smartphone in a problematic way lower wellbeing, or is someone whose wellbeing is low for other reasons more likely to turn to their smartphone for comfort, distraction, or perhaps escapism?" she said.

But Dr Horwood said it was important to note her study showed smartphone use wasn't all bad.

"For what we term 'communication use' - calls and text messages - we found a slight positive association with wellbeing," she said.

"So using phones to facilitate a direct connection with people seems to be good, as opposed to passively looking at what people are doing on social media."

The next step in Dr Horwood's research is a number of new studies to drill down into the impact of smartphone use on children's social and emotional wellbeing, as well as their family relationships.

"The ubiquity of smartphones is almost at saturation point now, 94 per cent of teenagers own a smartphone, 67 per cent of primary schools students, and a third of pre-schoolers have some sort of personal device," Dr Horwood said.

"That exposure can have lots of potential negative effects including cyber bullying, anxiety and depression, sedentary behaviour, low body image, and family conflict.

"So it's something we need to start addressing at a young age. The sooner we can implement healthy behaviours, the easier these issues will be to manage as they grow up."

Dr Horwood's tips for healthy smartphone use:

  • Turn off all non-essential notifications so your phone isn't constantly interrupting you.
  • Set aside a block of time per day to look at your social media feeds, if that's what typically distracts you.
  • Use the screen time functions on your phone to set limits on daily phone use.
  • To improve your sleep quality, don't keep your phone beside your bed at night. Preferably charge it in a different room.
  • If you find your socialising is restricted to your smartphone, aim to build daily interactions with people in real life.
  • Try to get up and move more throughout the day to reduce sedentary behaviour and improve your mental well-being.

For more information about Dr Horwood's research visit www.blackscreens.com.au.

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