New study uncovers a “vicious cycle” between feeling less socially connected and increased smartphone use

by Raj Das

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia and a media lab in Germany suggests that prolonged use of smartphones can have a negative impact on mental well-being and social connectedness. Unlike previous studies that relied on self-reported data, this study directly tracked screen time to uncover a “vicious cycle” in which reduced social connection leads to increased smartphone use.

The influence of smartphones on mental well-being has been a topic of debate among researchers, with mixed results from earlier studies. While some studies, especially among teenagers, suggest that smartphones have a detrimental effect on mental health, others argue that the impact is minimal. One significant limitation of these studies has been the reliance on self-reported smartphone usage, which is often unreliable. This study aims to fill this gap by accurately tracking real screen time and measuring its effects on well-being and social connection.

To achieve this, the researchers directly measured smartphone use and its impact over a six-day period. Participants, consisting of 325 Android users ranging from ages 14 to 80 with 58% women, installed a screen-tracking app called “BeTrack” and completed questionnaires three times a day for six days. The data collected was analyzed using advanced statistical techniques to test two hypotheses related to how smartphone use interferes with or displaces offline social interactions.

The results of the study revealed that increased smartphone use within an hour was associated with lower well-being immediately after, although offline social interaction helped alleviate some of this negative impact. Furthermore, increased smartphone use led to a feeling of decreased social connection, especially among individuals who had average or higher levels of offline social interactions. In other words, a bidirectional relationship emerged, indicating that feeling less socially connected led to increased smartphone use, which in turn resulted in feeling even less connected.

The researchers stated, “Within individuals, we found that at times when an individual used their phone more in the hour preceding a survey, they reported lower levels of momentary well-being. We found no evidence of the reverse pathway: lower momentary well-being did not precede longer smartphone screen time, suggesting that smartphone use may lead to decreased well-being but not vice versa.”

The study also examined the impact of smartphone use on feelings of social connection. The findings suggested that within the same individual, increased phone use duration predicted decreased social connectedness, and these decreases in social connectedness further predicted heightened smartphone use. This bidirectional link highlights the complex relationship between social connectedness and smartphone use, indicating the possibility of a vicious cycle.

While this study provides unique insights into the relationship between smartphone screen time and well-being, it is important to note that it does not definitively establish causality and is limited to Android users. Additionally, the study did not differentiate between different types of smartphone usage, and there were other demographic limitations. Furthermore, the app used to track screen time only recorded actual screen on-time, excluding instances when the screen was off (such as listening to music or podcasts).

In conclusion, this study underscores the potential negative impact of prolonged smartphone use on mental well-being and social connection. By directly measuring screen time, the researchers were able to observe a “vicious cycle” in which reduced social connection led to increased smartphone use, further exacerbating feelings of disconnectedness. Future research should consider these findings when exploring the relationship between technology usage and mental health.

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