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Too much phone time may pose problems for college students

A young adult is looking at the smartphone in her hand.

Aug. 5, 2019— Smartphones are widely popular, and a growing body of research suggests excess use may trigger psychosocial problems in some teens and young adults.

Now a new survey found that 1 in 5 college students nationwide may have behavioral, academic and mental health problems because of their smartphone use.

A total of 3,425 students answered 156 questions as part of a survey about their smartphone habits, alcohol and drug use, grades, and physical and mental health.

The researchers found that 20% of the students reported problematic smartphone use. Of that group, 64% were female.

Signs of problematic phone use in the students included:

  • Using their phones too much.
  • Feeling fretful or impatient when they were away from their phone.
  • Difficulty concentrating in class because of their smartphone use.
  • Missing work because of time spent on their smartphones.
  • Experiencing blurred vision or other physical problems because of time spent on their phone.

Lower grades, more drinking and more sexual partners

Overall, problematic smartphone users had slightly lower grade point averages than their peers.

As a group, problematic smartphone users were less sexually active than other students. Still, 37.4% of the sexually active problem users in the past year had two or more sexual partners, compared to 27.2% of their peers.

And the number with six or more partners was more than double that of their peers—6.8% versus 3%. Problematic smartphone users who feel isolated may be using apps to find sexual partners, the researchers said.

The study also revealed that alcohol misuse was far higher among problem phone users. But it found no link with any other kind of substance abuse.

Mental health struggles

Additionally, the survey uncovered a significant association between problematic smartphone use and a variety of mental health problems. Among them: lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. These findings mirror ones from past studies of phone use.

The researchers cautioned that the study was a snapshot of smartphone use at a particular time. So it's not clear yet if problematic smartphone use leads to mental health issues—or vice versa. More research is needed to better understand the impact of smartphone use, they stressed.

The study appeared in Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

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