Study links excessive smartphone use to inability to endure emotional distress

New research published in Computers in Human Behavior suggests that those with poor emotion regulation skills are at higher risk of problematic smartphone use.

“The research literature demonstrates associations between both anxiety and depression symptom severity with problematic smartphone use,” explained Jon D. Elhai of the University of Toledo.

“However, many important, contemporary constructs in clinical psychology and psychiatry have not been examined for relationships with problematic smartphone use — such as distress tolerance and mindful awareness. So, we believed that it would be interesting and novel to test these constructs in relation to problematic smartphone use.”

The study of 261 college students found that levels of distress tolerance and mindfulness both predicted problematic smartphone use one month later.

Students who were better at coping with negative emotions and who were more attentive to the present moment were less likely to report problems associated with their smartphones, such as missing planned work or failing to get enough sleep because of excessive smartphone use.

“People with less ability to endure emotional distress, and people who use less mindful awareness to regulate emotion, had greater severity of problematic smartphone use. The ability to regulate emotion may be an important variable to help offset problematic use of technology,” Elhai told PsyPost.

The researchers also found that distress tolerance mediated the relationship between problematic smartphone use and anxiety sensitivity, while mindfulness mediated the relationship between problematic smartphone use and both depression and anxiety sensitivity.

However, the study has some limitations.

“Our study sample was limited to college students,” Elhai said. “And we used self-report measures, rather than interview-based diagnostic measures. Further exploration in clinical samples would be beneficial.”

The study, “Distress tolerance and mindfulness mediate relations between depression and anxiety sensitivity with problematic smartphone use“, was authored by Jon D. Elhai, Jason C. Levine, Kelsey D. O’Brien, and Cherie Armour.