Up to one in four children are 'addicted to smartphones'

Brothers using smart phones and digital tablet in back seat of SUV
"Addiction" is defined as withdrawal and distress "when the battery dies". [Photo: Getty]

Around one in four children may be “addicted” to their smartphone, research suggests.

Scientists from King’s College London looked at more than 41,000 youngsters and teenagers across 41 studies.

They found nearly a quarter (23.3%) had “problematic smartphone use” (PSU), defined as withdrawal and even distress “when the battery dies”.

The newfound “condition” more than tripled their risk of depression and anxiety, while also doubling the odds of insomnia.

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“There is a lot of public discourse around the possible negative effects of smartphone use”, study author Dr Ben Carter said.

“By looking at an 'addicted' pattern of behaviour towards smartphones we have established correlations between this type of dysfunctional behaviour and poorer mental health outcomes”.

Since smartphones burst onto the scene in 2011, they have become increasingly popular, with use even “ubiquitous” among 11-year-olds, the scientists wrote in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

Mental-health disorders in young people are also on the rise, with some pointing the finger at technology.

In 1999, 9.7% of five-to-15 years old in England had a “mental disorder”, rising to 10.1% in 2004 and 11.2% in 2017, NHS Digital statistics show.

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After looking at the range of studies, PSU was “diagnosed” if the participants experienced anxiety when away from their phone or neglected day-to-day activities to stare at the screen.

Mental-health conditions were reported according to questionnaires or any diagnoses.

Results suggest “problem users” were more likely to use their phones to watch TV or for social media, rather than just straight forward texting or calls.

The biggest warning sign was “using phones to gain peer acceptance”.

PSU was more common in those with other addictive behaviours, such as smoking, excessively drinking or compulsive shopping.

And girls aged 17-to-19 were the most likely to suffer, the results show.

As well as making someone more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and insomnia, PSU was also linked to an 86% higher risk of stress.

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The scientists worry smartphone “addiction” is “socially acceptable and widely available”. It may also be hard to break if established at a young age.

With smartphone use a “societal norm”, addition can be difficult to spot. Nonetheless, the scientists are calling on parents and teachers to look out for any red flags and limit use.

“Smartphones are here to stay and there is a need to understand the prevalence of problematic usage,” study author Dr Nicola Kalk said.

“We don't know whether it is the smartphone itself that can be addictive or the apps people use.

“Nevertheless, there is a need for public awareness around smartphone use in children and young people, and parents should be aware of how much time their children spend on their phones.”

The scientists add further research is required before PSU can be classed as a “behavioural addiction”.

Other experts picked holes in the study, arguing there was no one definition of PSU across the 41 papers reviewed.

“By doing so, they are likely to be comparing apples to oranges”, Dr Amy Orben, from the University of Cambridge, said.