TORONTO -- Almost one in four teens and young adults could be problematic smartphone users, and that behaviour is associated with higher risks of depressive symptoms, anxiety, sleeplessness and poor performance in school, according to newly published research.

Problematic use was defined as behaviour linked to smartphones that shares the features of addiction, such as feeling “withdrawal” symptoms or upset when the phone is unavailable, finding it difficult to control the amount of time spent on the phone, and using the phone to the detriment of other desirable activities.

“Smartphone addiction” is commonly bandied about in the media or among fed-up parents, but the concept is controversial among academics.

The study, published Friday in the journal BMC Psychiatry, is the largest systematic look at the issue. Researchers crunched the data of 41 studies in North America, Europe and Asia that included close to 42,000 participants and found that together they pointed to 23 per cent of young people reporting problematic smartphone use.

Girls aged 17 to 19 were found to be the most at risk.

The researchers, all based in London, said they wanted to look beyond how much time teens and young people spend on their phones and instead explore dysfunctional use. The rise in mental health conditions among young people over the last decade has coincided with the widespread use of smartphones. But whether those two realities are linked remains to be determined.

At this stage, the quality of the evidence is generally poor, the researchers found, but it warrants “urgent further exploration” of smartphones as a potential cause of distress among young people, the researchers say.

“Smartphones are here to stay and there is a need to understand the prevalence of problematic smartphone usage,” said co-senior author Dr. Nicola Kalk at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College in a press release.

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

All the studies used in this research collected data from questionnaires exploring depression, anxiety, insomnia, stress and poor school performance, rather than clinical or formal diagnoses.

Problematic users reported that social networking was their most important or preferred activity on smartphones. TV watching was also linked with problem use. Behavioural addictions, including internet and Facebook additions, compulsive buying, increased alcohol use, and cigarette smoking, were all associated with problematic smartphone use.

The researchers also found that low self-control, impulsivity, emotional instability, loneliness, and low self-esteem, were more common among problematic users.

Higher family incomes were also linked to problematic use.

Smartphones are widely available and facilitate socially important activities, such as work and education. So when positive use crosses into problematic use, the researchers argue it “poses a different and arguably much bigger public health problem than substances of abuse or even Internet gaming.”