Addicted to our devices: Researchers track global patterns of smartphone use

Survey suggests likelihood of problematic smartphone use greater among women, young people
young man lies in bed looking at smartphone

Researchers surveyed more than 50,000 participants across 195 countries in a bid to understand who is at risk of smartphone addiction (photo by Erin Li/Pexels)

Are you addicted to your smartphone? If so, you're not alone.  

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto have collected the largest set of data in any study regarding problematic smartphone use. 

The study – published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction – found that among 41 countries with at least 100 participants, women scored higher than men in problematic smartphone use, with the results being inversely proportional to age. That is, the older a user is, the less likely they are to have problematic smartphone use.  

“We weren’t expecting this kind of robust consistency,” says study co-author Jay Olson, a post-doctoral researcher in the department of psychology at U of T Mississauga.

Jay Olson (photo by Gabriel Helfant)

The data also allowed researchers – including Dasha Sandra, a PhD student in the department of psychological clinical science at U of T Scarborough – to identify geographic patterns since it covered multiple countries across several continents.

The highest scores of problematic use were found in Southeast Asia, while the lowest were in Europe.  

Olson says the results prompt “fundamental questions in the field” such as: Why are women shown to have higher rates of problematic smartphone use? What is it about young people that increases their likelihood of problematic use? And what are the social and cultural differences from country to country that influence these results? 

The researchers collected survey responses from 50,423 participants aged 18 to 90 across 195 countries. Survey participants answered questions according to the Smartphone Addiction Scale, a widely used measure to study problematic smartphone use. 

Olson says problematic use among women may have something to do with how each gender generally uses their smartphones. 

“Researchers think women tend to use their phones more for social reasons: communication with friends and family via social media,” he says, adding that uses related to social validation (for example, “likes” on Instagram) are “the kinds of uses that can build habits very quickly.” 

It’s not that men don’t use their phones for social reasons, he says, but it’s believed they tend to use fewer social functions such as keeping up with group chats, connecting with family or following influencers.  

The research team aims to test this hypothesis as they continue to analyze the data.  

Problematic usage can also reflect distress or anguish experienced by individuals.

“People try to avoid negative emotions by using their phone – kind of like an adult pacifier,” he says, noting differences in both gender and age can be related to differences in distress levels. 

The research also accounts for cultural differences around smartphone use. Using an index of “cultural tightness” and “cultural looseness,” researchers examined the data through varying social norms across the globe. The distinction can also be made by examining collectivist cultures – which prioritize group connections – versus individualist cultures.  

Their hypothesis is that strictness of social norms plays a role in smartphone use. In an individualistic culture, for example, “it’s not expected that you would be calling your family every day,” Olson says. 

Another factor is the number of available screens competing for users’ attention. Olson notes that some countries bypassed widespread laptop and desktop computers in favour of developing mobile data networks, meaning that smartphones became people’s primary computing device. For example, Europe, which recorded the lowest rates of problematic use, has been using the internet since it first arrived on personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s. Southeast Asia, by contrast, recorded the highest rates of problematic use and had widespread adoption of the internet via smartphones in just the last 15 years.  

“It explains some differences in screen time,” Olson says. 

Not all smartphone use is problematic since it largely depends on how an individual is using a phone. 

“A social media manager could be logging eight hours of screen time a day, but this doesn’t necessarily have a problematic effect on your life versus somebody who uses their phone for half an hour from midnight to 12:30 a.m. while trying to fall asleep,” Olson explains. 

The research team plans to run a longer-term version of the survey to track smartphone use over time. It’s also looking into developing a habit-based intervention for problematic smartphone usage, for which data like this is critical. 

“This is in some sense a global experiment,” Olson says. “Smartphones became popular around 2008 and we’re just tracking the effects of this globally, post-hoc.” 


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