Does anyone remember when mobile phones were used only for calling (or texting people) and even had antennas? That was ages ago!

Nowadays, our smartphones offer multimedia and converge into a single device about the size of our palm. From communicating with each other and watching television to banking – everyone is glued to their phones. These devices offer fantastic benefits and transform how we communicate and live our daily lives. But behind all the advantages of having a smartphone, dangerous psychological consequences lurk.

The Effects of Excessive Smartphone Use on Well-Being and Performance

Research has shown that the frequent use of online media (including smartphones, video games, online chatting, etc.) is associated with addiction, anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), etc.
For instance, cross-sectional studies (meaning studies of different population groups) have shown that people, who spend a significant amount of their time online, score higher on anxiety and depression scales. The direction of this association, however, is still unclear. People may spend more time online because they are depressed, but it might also be that spending time online makes them more depressed.

Regarding learning and optimal cognitive performance, there is one particularly powerful way in which our use of smartphones could sabotage us. That affects our attention, resulting in a state similar to that of ADHD.

The phone itself cannot give you ADHD more than, say, watching television can. Unlike watching television, however, the smartphone contains hundreds of applications. While using it, we constantly switch between these apps: one study shows that, on average, people do 101 app switches daily and have at least one 7-min smartphone session every hour of their waking time!
This constant switch between apps and between the contents of an app (think about the endless scrolling through your Instagram) forces our brain into a state of inattention. Essentially, we cannot sustain our attention and focus on the task at hand.
A longitudinal study (i.e., where the same participants are measured in several time points) showed that prolonged use of smartphones is related to higher ADHD scores measured 24-moths later from the baseline.

In relation to that, another study found a relationship between frequent smartphone use and poor academic performance. Put otherwise, the more we use our smartphones, the more we become unable to focus our attention. To process, consolidate and learn information, our brains need focused attention. Therefore, the more we are unable to sustain our attention, the worse our cognitive performance becomes.

This puts everyone abusing their smartphones at significant risk of developing ADHD (or a similar condition).

The risk is exceptionally high for young children and adolescents, whose brains are still in what we call “critical periods”.

These are periods of intense cognitive, psychological, emotional and social development. If the brain is in a constant state of inattention within these critical periods, this state will likely persist later on. Unfortunately, the data so far show us that age is a significant predictor of both frequent smartphone use and online addiction, meaning that young people are more likely to become highly dependent on their mobile phones.

What can be done to negate the negative consequences of excessive media usage?

Despite all the data mentioned above, the future does not have to be grim. Limiting mobile phone usage is the most effective way to offset the adverse effects on our attention. But then, now much time is okay and how much is not?

Unfortunately, there are no strict recommendations yet.

Health agencies such as the WHO recommend:

  • No screen time for children under the age of 1.
  • For 2-year-olds, less than 60 minutes.
  • Between 2- and 5- years old, up to 60 minutes.

There are no strict recommendations for adolescents, and appropriate screen time should be a matter of personal and parental responsibility.

In adults, data from 2019 shows that the average smartphone usage was 3 hours/per day, which is quite significant. A 2022 study showed that even a 1-hour reduction in smartphone usage significantly reduced problematic behaviours and depressive symptoms, leading to an overall increase in life satisfaction and physical activity. According to the results of this study, complete abstinence from smartphone use was not necessary to achieve these improvements.

In sum, if I have to extrapolate from the current data, a somewhat safe “dosage” of smartphone use for children and adolescents will be within 60 mins a day, while for adults, it could be up to 120 mins. Replacing some of the time on the phone with activities promoting sustained attention, such as reading or working in blocks without distractions, could reverse the damage.

However, for optimal results, what each of us could do is measure their baseline first. That is the average smartphone time across several days. Then try to gradually reduce it to the desired duration by no more than an hour.

Need more resources?

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Brailovskaia, J., Delveaux, J., John, J., Wicker, V., Noveski, A., Kim, S., … & Margraf, J. (2022). Finding the “sweet spot” of smartphone use: Reduction or abstinence to increase well-being and healthy lifestyle?! An experimental intervention study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

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