Exploring problematic smartphone use during pandemic

Smartphones have become people’s daily companions and an integral part of our lives and interactions with information and other people. Through mobile Internet access, smartphones allow quick access and provide up-to-date news around the globe and in the life of family and friends.  In addition to the active online interaction, one can passively observe the online behavior of others by checking their updates and depending on privacy settings, we can track when our friends are online, and whether they have read our recent messages. 

Essentially “smartphones not only satisfy our need for belonging; they also can contribute to the satisfaction of another important human need—the sense of control.” Previous research has demonstrated that smartphone use has significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. While smartphones can enhance daily routines and social connection, studies has also shown that smartphone use can become problematic and negatively affect relationships, work, and mental or physical health. A more complete understanding of factors that may contribute to problematic smartphone use (PSU) could help inform efforts to prevent and manage such behavior.

To provide new insights, researchers from the University of Bochum in Germany conducted an online survey of 516 smartphone users aged 18 and over in Germany in April and May of 2021. The survey included questions to evaluate self-reported smartphone use as well as sense of control, fear of missing out, and repetitive negative thinking—three factors that the researchers hypothesized could contribute to problematic smartphone use, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Statistical analysis of the survey results found that those individuals who reported experiencing low sense of control, fear of missing out, and repetitive negative thinking,and indeed, all were associated with greater severity of problematic smartphone use.

Moderating effect of repetitive negative thinking on the connection between fear of missing out and problematic smartphone use (N = 516).

While the findings do not prove causation, the statistical analysis also suggested possible interactions between the four factors. For one, fear of missing out may be a key mechanism by which low sense of control could lead to problematic smartphone use. Meanwhile, a higher degree of repetitive negative thinking was associated with a stronger relationship between fear of missing out and problematic smartphone use.

The sample was comprised of mostly female and rather young participants; the authors suggest that the study should be replicated in more age and gender balanced samples from other countries, to ensure the results are generalizable to other populations. Furthermore, the study was conducted during the pandemic when participants’ usual daily routines may have been disrupted, possibly affecting the participants’ sense of control. Nonetheless, the findings are in line with the hypothesis that loss of control—as experienced by some during the pandemic—could boost the risk of problematic smartphone use.

Source: Brailovskaia J, Stirnberg J, Rozgonjuk D, Margraf J, Elhai JD (2021) From low sense of control to problematic smartphone use severity during Covid-19 outbreak: The mediating role of fear of missing out and the moderating role of repetitive negative thinking. PLoS ONE 16(12): e0261023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0261023