Techno-overload: How our smartphone use is impacting our wellbeing

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Problematic smartphone use is associated with lower wellbeing, according to a new world-first Australian study and the most comprehensive investigation of phones and wellbeing to date.

The research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, surveyed over 500 Victorian university students and found that compulsive smartphone use is associated with negative emotions, lack of control, a reduced sense of purpose in life, and a reduced ability to resist social pressure.

And here's the kicker - lead author Dr Sharon Horwood of Deakin University said that habitual smartphone use and entertainment use - using the phone to relax, escape and pass time - was most associated with lower wellbeing scores.

"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

If you're thinking "but isn't this old news?" well, the answer is yes - and no.

While previous studies have looked at smartphone use and wellbeing, Dr Horwood's research goes into more depth looking beyond factors such as life satisfaction and whether or not people experience more positive 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," she says.

And the results were compelling.

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

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But what exactly is "problematic smartphone use?" According to Dr Horwood, it's not so much about the number of hours per se - it's a little more complex.

"We define problematic smartphone use as 'compulsive usage that leads to impaired daily functioning in terms of productivity, social relationships, physical health, or emotional well-being," she says. " So it's not so much a matter of x number of hours per day that are problematic, it's more the type of use and other human factors (e.g. personality, stress etc.) that may lead to that person's use having negative impacts on their life."

Looking more closely at wellbeing, the pair found that the four main areas negatively related to problematic smartphone use included:

  1. How much control people felt they had over their use
  2. Whether using their phone interferes with a person's day-to-day life (including work and study)
  3. Whether phone use gets in the way of positive relationships with others
  4. Whether smartphone use was a "panacea for boredom and lack of personal growth."

And personality mattered, too.

"We found that particular personality traits were associated with problematic smartphone use," Dr Horwood said, specifically, "Higher levels of neuroticism (tendency to have a negative world view, be worrisome, and anxious) and lower levels of conscientiousness." 

Why might that be the case?

"There are different ways to think about those results," she says, "but one way could be that people who are more anxious and worried might be more likely to rely on their phones for validation. Equally, people who are less conscientiousness in general tend to have fewer good health habits (of which limiting screen time could be one)."  

According to Dr Horwood, the results raise a number of questions.

"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?" 

But it's not all bad news - at least for the five people who still use their phone to make phone calls (and the rest of us who text).

"For what we term "communication use" – calls and text messages – we found a slight positive association with wellbeing," Dr Horwood 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." 

Want to kick the (screen) habit? Here's how to have a healthier relationship with your phone:

  • 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.