Largest-ever global smartphone study reveals surprising use patterns

Largest-ever global smartphone study reveals surprising use patterns
A study has found consistent use patterns across most countries, revealing young women have the most problematic smartphone behaviors
A study has found consistent use patterns across most countries, revealing young women have the most problematic smartphone behaviors
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A study has found consistent use patterns across most countries, revealing young women have the most problematic smartphone behaviors
A study has found consistent use patterns across most countries, revealing young women have the most problematic smartphone behaviors

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.

Source: University of Toronto, Mississauga

josh kahan
Awesome article of course. A positive side effct of this study is that it shows that people all over the world are the same.
I'm an engineer with patents involving the use of SmartPhones. Never had one; never will.
I use mine during the day, for work. When I get home at night, other than to pop it off the charger for bed, I rarely touch it.
"It’s unlikely that one-third of all smartphone users in the world are addicted to their devices"

actually, i don't believe that's far from the real number - humans are fixated by visual stimuli, and the short term repeated reward of social media drive a dopamine addiction; i don't think it's helping attention spans in growing users either, which may go some way to explain the explosive increase in prevalence of supposed cases of ADD
Baker Steve
I was recently stuck in a hospital waiting room for about half and hour. The other occupants, two young pregnant women, never came out of their smartphones the entire time I was there.
Louis Vaughn
I remember my grand daughter being raised with toy smart phones that beeped.
As soon as she got ahold of her mom's or G-mom's, she was hooked.
The smart phone became the go to baby sitter. She now lives on Tic-Tock.
I suppose it's only natural since Girls are more socially tuned than boys;
RE: study findings.
It's our own fault though. In the rush to make the all mighty dollar,
there were no studies done to asses adverse social impacts.
Our children are the last to be considered, and the greatest victims (our future).
I'm certain the industry knew, and counted on it; as addict's make reliable repeat customers.
Many are quick to blame the parents; but the digital scene is advancing so quickly, without oversight,
it's no wonder parents were blind sided by this. AND
Here comes AI; which already left the barn; that they now want to Pause.
Good Luck with that. it's not going to happen.
AI is more than disruptive, technology and is accelerating; it's a new epoch,
that will be more impactful than fire, agriculture, metal, gun powder, steam,
internal combustion, flight, silicon, and lithium.
The first one across the finish line wins (i.e. Rules);
no one can afford to come in second; game over.
It used to be Humanity could adapt to changes in the environment;
But this much change, with no time to adapt does not bode well.
Unless we all Borg-ify.
Good. Bad? we won't know until afterwards.
Happy thoughts for the Holidays; Hmm
Interestingly, technology intentionally directs us to new customs and habits, creates dependence and then is surprised by the phenomenon that it itself created.
Communication, for example, is one of the basic elements of human evolution in groups. This is already part of the DNA, since the first hunters/gatherers...
It would therefore be obvious and inevitable that an effective communication improvement system would be absolutely incorporated.
Therefore, it is not just a question of dependence, but an organic need.
Now, we just have to wait a few generations, until the minds of those who own this new communication toy are able to separate the wheat from the chaff and start using it without the frenzy of novelty and fashion.
why does more people being addicted to something make it less of an addiction/problem?

If 75% of people were addicted to smoking, it's still an addiction. It's still a problem. I don't doubt these numbers. And if it's a fairly global phenomenon, that tells us something about inherent biological instincts that persist across cultures/genders.
I use the cheapest plan with no data so I never use my phone to go online. Taking pics, using the timer/alarm, texting, a voice recorder.
Back in the good ol days, only 40 years ago, it used to be sort of fun to go for a long drive and lose you way and have to get a road map out of the glove box to figure out where you were. If you really couldn`t figure it out, you`d have to find a phone booth to call someone. Now you can just jump in your vehicle and tell it where you want to go and it won`t be long until it takes you there. Wonder how long before, beam me up Scotty is here. Extrapolating on what Louis Vaughn says digital intelligence will replace biological and bye bye humans. Heaven help us! Time and time again we have proven we are not capable of helping ourselves. God is great!