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Avid Cellphone Use by College Kids Tied to Anxiety, Lower Grades

Study suggests problems may come from sense of obligation to stay connected

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THURSDAY, Dec. 12, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Ever feel a little addicted to your cellphone?

A new study suggests that college students who can't keep their hands off their mobile devices -- "high-frequency cellphone users" -- report higher levels of anxiety, less satisfaction with life and lower grades than peers who use their cellphones less frequently.

If you're not college age, you're not off the hook. The researchers said the results may apply to people of all ages who have grown accustomed to using cellphones regularly, day and night.

"People need to make a conscious decision to unplug from the constant barrage of electronic media and pursue something else," said Jacob Barkley, a study co-author and associate professor at Kent State University. "There could be a substantial anxiety benefit."

But that's easier said than done, he noted, especially among students who are accustomed to being in constant communication with their friends. "The problem is that the device is always in your pocket," Barkley said.

The researchers became interested in the question of anxiety and productivity when they were doing a study, published in July, which found that heavy cellphone use was associated with lower levels of fitness. Issues related to anxiety seemed to be associated with those who used the mobile device the most.

For this study, published online and in the upcoming February issue of Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers surveyed about 500 male and female students at Kent State University. The study authors captured cellphone and texting use, and used established questionnaires about anxiety and life satisfaction, or happiness.

Participants, who were equally distributed by year in college, allowed the investigators to access their official university records to obtain their cumulative college grade point average (GPA). The students represented 82 different fields of study.

Questions examining cellphone use asked students to estimate the total amount of time they spent using their mobile phone each day, including calling, texting, using Facebook, checking email, sending photos, gaming, surfing the Internet, watching videos, and tapping all other uses driven by apps and software. Time listening to music was excluded.

On average, students reported spending 279 minutes -- almost five hours -- a day using their cellphones and sending 77 text messages a day.

The researchers said this is the first study to link cellphone use with a validated measure of anxiety with a wide range of cellphone users. Within this sample of typical college students, as cellphone use increased, so did anxiety.

The study authors noted that data they collected in their earlier study, and other research, suggest that some cellphone users may experience anxiety as a result of a perceived obligation to remain constantly connected to various social networks through their phones.

"We need to try to understand what is behind this increase in student anxiety," said Andrew Lepp, lead study author and an associate professor at Kent State University. "At least for some students, the sense of obligation that comes from being constantly connected may be part of the problem. Some may not know how to be alone to process the day's events, to recover from certain stressors."

While there is a relationship between anxiety and cellphone use, lower grades and lower levels of life satisfaction, the researchers did not determine a cause-and-effect relationship. Barkley said that while it's his guess that the cellphone is actually making people anxious, it's possible that those who are more anxious may use or check their cellphones more frequently.

And without a doubt, the more people use their cellphones, the less time they have to engage in other stress reducers, such as getting exercise, being alone and having time to think, talking with a friend face to face, and engaging in other activities they truly enjoy, Barkley said.

One expert said that for many people, cellphones seem to be irresistible interruptions in virtually every aspect of their lives.

"Many people go to sleep holding their hand-held technology," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"I have kids come to my office for treatment, and if their phone goes off, they take the call, or if they don't like what we're talking about, they pull out their phone and start playing a video game," he said.

Technology also affects how people relate to others, Fornari added. "Relationships today are contaminated by technology," he said. "The connections with others are different; they will email or text things they may not say face-to-face. There is a different degree of inhibition or tact, creating so much misunderstanding."

What to do? Fornari said educational and university environments need to develop guidelines about technology and its place in education.

Study author Lepp said college students need to take a hard look at the time cellphones are stealing from their lives. "Students need to shut off their phones, ignore text messages and try to insulate themselves from some of the extraneous distractions that reduce the quality of their work," he advised. "And learn how to be alone with yourself."

More information

Learn more about anxiety and college students from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

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