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As many as one in four children and young people may have smartphone addiction

17 to 19-year-old young women seem to be most vulnerable, research suggests

Caroline White

Friday, 29 November 2019

As many as one in four children and young people may be addicted to their smartphones, with 17 to 19-year-old women most vulnerable to this behaviour, suggests a pooled analysis* of the observational research data, published today in BMC Psychiatry

Over the past decade, smartphone use has become widespread among children and young people which coincides with a rise in poor mental health in this age group.

Several studies have looked at the prevalence of problematic smartphone use in children and young people who use smartphones, and how this relates to mental health, but these data have not been pooled and critically evaluated.

To explore the possible association between smartphone use and mental health in children and young people, the researchers looked at patterns of behaviour linked to smartphone use, rather than smartphone use itself. 

They systematically reviewed 41 relevant studies involving 41,871 children and young people, and published between 2011, when smartphones first became widespread, and 2017.

The studies included 30 from Asia, nine from Europe, and two America. More than half (55%) of the participants were female.

Mental health issues, which were self-reported, included depression; anxiety; stress; poor sleep quality; and poor school performance.

Pooled data analysis showed that around one in four study participants (23%) showed signs of problematic phone use, defined as any behaviour linked to smartphones that has the features of an addiction.

These included feeling panicky or upset when the phone is unavailable; finding it difficult to control the amount of time spent on the phone; and using the phone to the detriment of other enjoyable activities.

This pattern of use was associated with a tripling in the risk of depression and anxiety, and a near doubling in the risk of perceived stress. And those with problematic phone use were more than twice to report poor quality sleep.

Young women aged 17 to 19 were most likely to have problematic phone use.

“There is currently a lot of public discourse around the possible negative effects of smartphone use, and previous research has tended to only examine the quantity and frequency of time spent on any technology or screen,” explained lead co-author, Dr Ben Carter, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“Our review assesses the effects not just of heavy use, but of dysfunctional smartphone use, and by looking at an 'addicted' pattern of behaviour towards smartphones we have established correlations between this type of dysfunctional behaviour and poorer mental health outcomes.”

Lead co-author Dr Nicola Kalk, also of the Institute of Psychiatry, added: “Smartphones are here to stay and there is a need to understand the prevalence of problematic smartphone usage. 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.”

*Carter B, et al. Prevalence of problematic smartphone usage and associated mental health outcomes amongst children and young people: a systematic review, meta-analysis and GRADE of the evidence’. BMC Psychiatry 2019. DOI:10.1186/s12888-019-2350-x

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