Largest-ever global smartphone study reveals surprising use patterns
A new study from a team of researchers in Canada is offering one of the largest portraits to date of global smartphone use. Surveying thousands of people across nearly 200 countries the study found unexpectedly consistent use patterns that challenge current definitions for smartphone addiction.
In as little as 15 years smartphones have become critical objects for most humans all over the globe. Despite the incredible prevalence of these devices, researchers are still playing catch-up, trying to understand exactly how this new technology is affecting our well-being.
A study published last year surveyed thousands of adults across 14 countries. It was looking for problematic smartphone use patterns and found younger women were consistently self-reporting the highest rates of what the researchers termed PMPU (Problematic Mobile Phone Use).
This new research looked to dramatically broaden that demographic dataset in order to see if similar kinds of problematic smartphone use were consistent across diverse geographical locations. To do this the researchers surveyed 50,423 subjects across 195 countries.
Each subject completed a brief survey called the Smartphone Addiction Scale - Short Version (SAS-SV). The survey is composed of 10 statements participants rate from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree). The survey includes statements such as, "I have a hard time concentrating in class, while doing assignments, or while working, due to smartphone use,” and, “I miss work that I planned, due to smartphone use.”
Perhaps the most striking overall finding in the study was that between 29 and 31% of all those surveyed received SAS-SV scores that technically classified them as at a high risk of smartphone addiction. Zooming in on the 41 countries with the most collected data (over 100 participants), the study consistently found younger women were the demographic with the highest risk of problematic smartphone use. According to study co-author Jay Olson, this robustly consistent result was unexpected.
"That kind of consistency across the world would suggest that this isn't an incidental finding that was from, say, how one country interpreted the scale … it seems like this is a solid global finding," Olson said recently in an interview with CTV News.
The global scale of the survey revealed some interesting region-to-region variations. For example, Southeast Asia reported some of the highest rates of problematic smartphone use compared to relatively low rates of problematic use in Europe. Olson speculates these geographical discordances could be due to a combination of cultural differences (such as a greater emphasis on family connections leading to more frequent phone calls) and broader technological trends.
“Some countries skipped over having widespread laptops and desktop computers,” Olson suggests, referring to the more recent adoption of broad internet use in Southeast Asian countries following the introduction of smartphones. So it’s possible some countries simply have higher rates of smartphone use due to the technology citizens are using to engage with the internet.
Olson is hyper-aware of the limitations in his study data. It’s unlikely that one-third of all smartphone users in the world are addicted to their devices, at least in the traditional sense of an addiction being something with significantly negative associations. He says there are so many different reasons people engage with their devices nowadays that future research will need to become much more nuanced in how smartphone use is recorded.
“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 notes.
Alongside this observation, Olson also speculates a potential need to reconsider how we define smartphone addiction. While the SAS-SV has been an extraordinarily useful, and clinically accurate, way to categorize problematic smartphone use for nearly a decade, some of the data points in the new study question the value of these categories.
A striking 56% of university-age women in Canada, for example, met the criteria for problematic smartphone use, according to SAS-SV scores. So the million-dollar question: is the majority of this cohort actually suffering from serious smartphone addiction, or has this new technology become so deeply ingrained into common use that we need to come up with new ways to measure problematic behavior?
"It seems like social norms have changed and smartphones have become really integrated in our lives," Olson speculates. "It may not make sense to say the average female student in Canada is clinically addicted to her phone. Maybe it's more that society has changed and having this excessive smartphone use is more normal now."
The new study was published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.