Childhood emotional maltreatment predicts problematic smartphone use among adolescents

New research has found a link between childhood emotional maltreatment and problematic smartphone use in adolescents. The study appears in the journal Psychiatry Research.

“Childhood emotional maltreatment has important adverse psychological and emotional impacts on children, and they might try to avoid these problems by spending excessive time on their smartphones,” said study author Kagan Kircaburun of Duzce University.

“One of the possible outcomes of childhood emotional maltreatment is body image dissatisfaction, which can also lead to elevated engagement in problematic smartphone use. Problematic smartphone use is a major health concern in contemporary society and determining its risk factors is important for health professionals to develop prevention strategies.”

“Despite a large number of studies, the effects of childhood emotional maltreatment and body image dissatisfaction on problematic smartphone use were unclear. We carried out this research to fill this gap in the literature.”

The study of 443 adolescents in Turkey found that childhood emotional maltreatment predicted problematic smartphone use. Teens who reported experiencing emotional neglect or abuse in childhood tended to also report issues with their use of smartphones, such as having a hard time concentrating due to the device or using it so much that it caused neck or wrist pain.

Body image dissatisfaction, depression, and social anxiety were also predictors of problematic smartphone use and partially accounted for the link between childhood emotional maltreatment and problematic smartphone use.

The findings highlight the negative effects of emotional and psychological maltreatment on children, Kircaburun told PsyPost.

“Society is more focused and alarmed on physical and sexual abuse, however, emotional maltreatment is more common and can be as damaging as other types of trauma,” the researcher explained. “Adolescence is a critical and difficult period for individuals, given that those who had traumatic experiences are more likely to struggle during adolescence, parents and teachers should be very careful in order not to lead these teens to risky behaviors.”

“As the direct relationships of emotional maltreatment and body image dissatisfaction with problematic smartphone use remained significant after including depression and social anxiety, it appears that there should be other mediating factors that may explain these associations. Therefore, new studies that will investigate different mediating and moderating variables are warranted,” Kircaburun added.

“Our study showed that there are underlying psychological problems that need to be addressed while trying to understand adolescents’ excessive technology use. In particular, having been exposed to emotionally traumatizing behaviors as a child can lead to problematic smartphone use in adolescence, and perceived dissatisfaction with body image, higher depression, and social anxiety may partially be explanatory co-existing problems in this relationship.”

The study, “The role of childhood emotional maltreatment and body image dissatisfaction in problematic smartphone use among adolescents,” was authored by Emrah Emirtekin, Sabah Balta, İrfan Sural, Kagan Kircaburun, Mark D. Griffiths, and Joel Billieux.