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Around one-third of people globally may be at risk of smartphone addiction: Canadian-led study

A new Canadian study has found that around one-third of people around the world may be at a high risk for smartphone addiction, with women and people in parts of Asia more likely to report problematic use.

The study, published Tuesday in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, asked more than 50,000 people, between 18 and 90 years of age, from 195 countries to gauge how problematic their smartphone use is – or when a person's habitual smartphone use interferes negatively with their life.

The researchers, who hail from the University of Toronto Mississauga, McGIll University and Harvard University, describe this research as the largest of its kind in the field.

"We wanted to provide sort of a foundational understanding of problematic smartphone use across the world," Jay Olson, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and lead researcher for the study, said in an interview Monday with

The study found that women generally, across countries, reported higher problematic smartphone use than men.

"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.

Problematic smartphone use also tends to decline with age, although some "atypical" patterns emerged when looking at specific countries, the study says.

Canada for its part ranked among the middle of the pack.

"So it might be affecting your concentration at school or work, or affecting your sleep, for example, and so these kinds of subjective personal effects of smartphones we find just as important as things like overall screen time," Olson said.


The study used a common measurement known as the Smartphone Addiction Scale, which asks participants to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of 10 statements such as, "I miss work that I planned, due to smartphone use," and, "I have a hard time concentrating in class, while doing assignments, or while working, due to smartphone use."

The scale ranges from one or "strongly disagree" to six or "strongly agree."

Most of the participants, or 64 per cent, were women and the average age was close to 40.

Fifty-seven per cent of the respondents came from the United States, six per cent were from Canada and another six per cent were from Britain.

The study only included country-to-country comparisons for those that had at least 100 participants in the study, of which 41 qualified.

The researchers say some potential explanations for the gender differences could be that women tend to use their phones more for social purposes, which could eventually become habitual.

Women also generally have higher rates of depression and anxiety, the study says, and the scale may be "inadvertently" capturing people's coping mechanisms.

"What we don't really know is how much of these contribute to the gender differences per se or whether there's additional factors that are also contributing to this," Olson said.

On age, he adds that younger people are usually faster adopters of, and socialize more through, new consumer technology.


Respondents in and around Southeast Asia reported the highest scores, while those in Europe had the lowest scores.

The researchers say more established social norms, such as maintaining close contact with family and friends, could potentially lead to more smartphone use.

Olson says a previous study he was involved in found a strong correlation between the strength of these norms – also referred to as cultural "tightness" or "looseness" – and smartphone addiction.

"How integrated smartphones are in people's daily lives across countries also probably explains some of the variation in problematic use," he said.

While COVID-19 probably "nudged" problematic smartphone use up, Olson says data pre-pandemic would have easily predicted this.

"It's been increasing since 2014 basically when we started tracking it with this particular measure," he said.

"It's probably higher than usual because of COVID, but we don't think this explains any particular general global findings that we found."


The study found rates of problematic smartphone use to be higher among certain subgroups.

In Canada, for example, Olson said 56 per cent of university-age women met the criteria compared to 33 per cent of university-age men, which was a larger difference than he expected.

This raises the question, he said, of what has changed – people or norms.

"It seems like social norms have changed and smartphones have become really integrated in our lives," Olson said.

"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."

Further research, he says, could help develop more personalized interventions, including by country.

Previous work Olson was involved in at McGill also looked at different "nudges" or strategies that could help reduce a person's smartphone use, such as cutting down on notifications or setting the phone to greyscale. Top Stories

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