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Pandemic smartphone use linked to lower sense of control

In a new study led by Julia Brailovskaia of Ruhr-Universität Bochum, scientists have found a link between problematic smartphone use and psychological issues during the pandemic in the spring of 2021. People with problematic smartphone use were linked to a lower sense of control, repetitive negative thinking and fear of missing out (FOMO). 

“During the 21st century, smartphones became people’s daily companions. Through mobile Internet access, smartphones allow permanent availability and provide up-to-date news around the globe and in the life of family and friends,” wrote the study authors. 

“Oral communication through phone calls is complemented by typed interaction and exchange of photos and videos anywhere and at any time using various social media applications on our smartphone – that is social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as instant messengers such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.”

“In addition to the active online interaction, one can passively observe the online behavior of others by checking their updates. Depending on privacy settings, we can track when our friends are online, and for example whether they have read our recent messages on WhatsApp.”

“To sum up, through the smartphone we can participate in the lives of other people and allow them to be part of our lives. These functions of our smartphone not only satisfy our need for belonging; they also can contribute to the satisfaction of another important human need – the sense of control.”

Previous studies have shown that during the COVID-19 pandemic, smartphone use increased substantially. Like many modern technologies, there are two sides to smartphone use. While phones can be useful tools for work efficiency and connectivity, they can also have negative impacts on relationships, as well as physical and mental health. 

To delve further into smartphone use during the pandemic, Brailovskaia and her colleagues surveyed 516 smartphone users over the age of 18 during April and May of 2021. 

The experts asked respondents to self report their smartphone use. There were also questions designed to ascertain people’s sense of control, repetitive thinking and fear of missing out. The team hypothesized that these factors might lead to problematic smartphone usage. 

The results of the survey analysis showed that indeed all of these factors were associated with problematic smartphone use. Correlation is not causation, however. There seems to be some statistically significant relationship between the four factors and problematic smartphone usage, yet exactly what that relationship is remains uncertain. 

It is possible that fear of missing out may be a factor that leads someone to problematic smartphone use through lack of control. Also, a larger amount of repetitive thinking was connected to a greater fear of missing out and problematic smartphone use. 

The study was primarily focused on young, female participants. To gain further insight, the experts suggest that the research be repeated with a broader range of people.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on December 22, 2021. 

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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