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Smartphone “addiction” and sleep

by on 2021/03/16

This blog was written by Rita Kanevski & Sinead Rhodes.

Excessive phone use is probably something we’ve all had to reflect upon at some point in our lives. Let’s set the scene.

You jump in the car to go to the supermarket. As you stop at the traffic lights, you remember that earlier you left your mum on ‘read’. The itch for your phone begins to build.  By the time you get to your favourite parking spot, a big queue of people awaits outside the store (since it’s COVID after all), all with their heads dug deep down into their screens. You are suddenly inspired to seize this opportunity to reply to your mum and, while you’re at it, scroll through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, your emails, the news, and the list goes on.  Alas, as your reach into your (unusually light) pocket, you realise your phone isn’t there. The panic sets in.

Is the phone in the car? Did I leave it at home? Where should I look? I better remember to text my mum back when I get home… That is if I even have a phone anymore. Will I need to fork out on a new phone now? Waiting in queues is so boring.

Okay maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the drift.  Why is it that some of us are so attached to our phones? Researchers at Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London wanted to answer just that.

What did the study do?

The study investigated the relationship between smartphone “addiction” and sleep quality in 1,043 young adults from the UK aged 18-30 years. To explore smartphone use habits, researchers asked participants to answer some questions about how much time they spent on their phones on an average weeknight and what they typically used their phones for (e.g. texting, social media, music).  Participants (adults) also completed the short version of the Smartphone Addiction Scale – a 10-item questionnaire originally developed to measure smart phone “addiction” in adolescents. This scale asked participants to rate whether they agreed with statements indicative of smartphone “addiction”, such as for example “Using smartphone longer than intended”. Participants were also asked to rate their quality of sleep by asking questions on things like what time they go to bed, how many hours of sleep they get, and how they rate their ability to fall asleep.

The results showed that 39% of the young adults surveyed scored as higher risk for problematic smartphone use. Longer daily phone use (~ 5hrs or more) and use at later times in the day (e.g.  after midnight) was associated with higher self-rated smartphone “addiction” scores.  Additionally, participants scoring higher on the Smartphone Addiction Scale were 41% more likely to experience poor sleep quality. Lower screen time (i.e., 2 or less hrs) reduced risk for poor sleep by 38%. The relationship between phone “addiction” and poor sleep outcomes remained even after taking into account (or, statistically controlling for) duration of screen time. This was interpreted to suggest that the relationship between smartphone “addiction” and sleep quality can’t simply be due to how long a person spends on their phone, and other risk factors are likely involved.

How well did the media cover the findings?

If Netflix’s controversial documentary, The Social Dilemma wasn’t enough to prompt you to re-evaluate your phone habits, these headlines could certainly do the trick:

Are you addicted to your smartphone? More than a THIRD of young adults report symptoms including poor sleep and anxiety when away from their phone – regardless of how long they spend on it each day Daily Mail

One in three young Brits unable to sleep because they are ‘addicted to their smartphonesThe Sun

But before you consider writing your phone off, let’s examine the credibility of these headlines. Indeed, as suggested by the Daily Mail, more than a third of the participants scored high on the Smartphone Addition Scale and reported poor sleep outcomes. But levels of anxiety were never measured in these participants so there is no basis for asserting that these young adults reported anxiety when away from their phones. The Sun also appears to misconceive this issue by implying that the participants surveyed “became upset when they couldn’t get to their phone and lost control over how long they spent scrolling”. Looking at the study, this is simply not the case. The authors do mention that previous research had shown that participants who experience smartphone “addiction” struggle with impaired control over their devices and anxiety when their phones are not easily accessible. These phenomena, however, were not addressed as part of the study. This implies an exaggeration on the media’s part to make the findings sound a bit more dramatic than they actually are. At Research the Headlines we have frequently spoken about the need to try and look at what the research actually involved and what has been exaggerated

Nonetheless, the use of quotation marks to refer to ‘“addiction”’ in both articles is somewhat reassuring. Indeed, it would be crude to suggest that a 10-item smartphone “addiction” questionnaire, originally developed to assess problematic phone use in teenagers, would be indicative of a clinical diagnosis of “addiction”. Addiction is quite a strong word, and in medical terms it can be defined as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive seeking, continued use despite harmful consequence, and long-lasting changes in the brain.” It would be a bit of stretch to suggest that 10 questions, used to assess problematic phone use in a sample of adolescents, would indicate clinical addiction in adults as we know it.

Both news articles stated that participants experienced problematic phone use “regardless of how much time they spent on them daily”. Again, this isn’t quite accurate. The study explicitly reported that longer duration of screen use was substantially related to smartphone “addiction”. In fact, 20% of those using their phone for 2hrs or less were classified as “addicted”, and this figure more than doubled to 54% for participants who reported using their phone for more than 5hrs a day. This suggests the less time people spent on their smartphone, the less likely they were to be “addicted”.

Key conclusions/other things to keep in mind

The study was cross-sectional, meaning that observations were collected from participants at a specific point in time. As the authors acknowledge, we cannot definitively say that smartphone “addiction” causes poor sleep, and reverse causality can’t be ruled out. For example, it is equally compelling to suggest that people who can’t get to sleep for other reasons (e.g. stress or poor mental health, not assessed as part of the study) tend to use their phones for longer periods of time, and so be generally more dependent on their phones. We have spoken about the importance of working out what is an association or can be considered a causal relationship in another blog.

The second issue the authors raise is the possibility that phones merely provide easy access to addictive material such as social media. This raises the question whether we are addicted to the material, rather than the smartphone itself? They point out that future research would benefit from exploring specifically the types of use associated with “addiction”. Although it’s important to note that as part of the data collected for this study participants were asked to indicate what they use their phones for (e.g. music, games, social media) and so it’s unclear why this wasn’t explored in more detail.

Lastly, the study relied on self-report questionnaires. Another study cautions against relying on self-reported estimates of phone use as these only moderately reflect participants’ actual behaviour. They suggest that objective measures of smartphone use data should be used in addition to self-reports to collect more accurate data.

To conclude, it sounds like there’s still much work to be done before we can say that young Brits are phone addicts. It’s equally important to consider some of the benefits smartphones have carried over the years, allowing us to interact with each other particularly during times where face to face interactions have been out of the question. 

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