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SMU PhD in Psychology student Shuna Khoo's paper on “problematic smartphone use” received an 'Honourable Mention' at the RISE Research Award by the Association for Psychological Society (APS). (Photo: Getty Images, Fizkes)
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Cutting Edge Research

How smartphone usage affects being mentally disengaged

Published on 23 May 2022

It is no secret that smartphones have taken over our lives. A 2022 survey shows that Americans check their phones 344 times per day. This incessant usage has led to a phenomenon known as “problematic smartphone use” — continuously failing to control addictive smartphone behaviour that causes functional impairment or distress, which meets the criteria for behavioural addiction as suggested by Kardefelt-Winther et al. (2017).

Given that smartphone addiction is related to numerous problems such as poor sleep quality, unsafe driving and heightened anxieties, there is an urgency to identify risk factors of problematic smartphone use. Therefore, Shuna Khoo, a fourth-year SMU PhD in Psychology student, sought to understand how certain traits would lead to excessive smartphone use in her research paper "Mental Disengagement Mediates the Effect of Rumination on Smartphone Use: A Latent Growth Curve Analysis".

The paper received an 'Honourable Mention' at the recent RISE Research Award by the Association for Psychological Society (APS), one of the US's largest and most prestigious psychology conferences.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

1. Ruminators tend to be heavier smartphone users
Studies have found that people who tend to ruminate — that is, dwell on negative thoughts — are more likely to be heavy users of smartphones. This is because ruminators may suffer from a heightened fear of missing out on online content and interactions, and therefore need to seek excessive reassurance from their online social networks when faced with negative thoughts.

Smartphones appeal to ruminators in three areas of coping: mental disengagement, problem-focused coping, and socioemotional coping.

Problem-focused coping is when a person deals with a problem in a direct and intentional way. They identify the problem, develop a plan to address it, and take action. On the other hand, socioemotional coping refers to the way we deal with stress and emotions. It encompasses both our cognitive and emotional responses to stressful situations.

2. Smartphones can be overused for mental disengagement
While ruminating can be a helpful way to process difficult emotions or attaining a goal, an individual who is repeatedly focused on issues that are causing distress or anxiety may seek distractions to avoid thinking about the issue altogether. Mental disengagement can take many forms, ranging from simple activities like daydreaming to more complex ones like dissociation. When faced with a troubling or stressful thought, smartphones provide an easy way to distract the mind from what is going on. Whether scrolling through social media feeds, playing a quick game, or watching a video, smartphones provide a break from ruminative thinking, and can be a significant source of mental disengagement.

3. Problem-solving versus a source of deeper issues

Whether we're trying to find the best route to a new restaurant or grappling with a stressful work situation, we often instinctively turn to our mobile devices for support and guidance. But smartphones can also be a double-edged sword when employed as a tool for solving problems.

Within a few clicks and swipes, phone users are bombarded with a deluge of problem-related information, which can exacerbate negative thoughts and feelings. In addition, smartphones make it easy to co-ruminate with others, lending social support and validation to negative thoughts in a way that may lead to further rumination.

For instance, one might turn to a diagnostic app for guidance on a minor medical condition, or consult a website for advice on resolving conflicts with a friend. As such, the behaviour can spiral into deeper ruminative thoughts about the problem.

4. Unexpected ruminations due to smartphone use
As people who experience uncontrollable, constant, and repetitive thoughts about past or future events, the paper hypothesised that ruminators might rely on smartphones to seek socioemotional support. For example, smartphone users may turn to social media or text conversations as outlets for connecting with others within their networks, or for reassurance.

But while it might be rewarding to rely on smartphones to mentally disengage from ruminations “by alleviating negative thoughts about stressors,” the same couldn’t be said about problem-focused and socioemotional coping.

On the contrary, the research showed that ruminators who undertook problem-focused and socioemotional coping did not change their smartphone use duration. Unlike mental disengagement, smartphone use by ruminators who experience problem-focused and socioemotional coping may not have a rewarding effect as “they may instead escalate rumination by yielding more problem-related information or facilitating co-rumination", according to the study.

5. Adverse effects of social networking?
While the convenience of social networking on phones can “undoubtedly satisfy ruminators’ incessant need to connect with others for co-rumination”, Shuna is currently conducting further research on how social networking use implicates one’s perception of self and possible intervention methods to alleviate the ill-effects of social networking.

A previous study has also shown that the tendency to perform social comparison on social media were related to “higher rumination, which, in turn, predicted higher compulsive social media use”.

In today's world, it's hard to imagine life without a smartphone. For many, our phones are essential tools for work, communication, and entertainment — or even appear to be a helpful coping mechanism in times of stress or anxiety.

However, the relationship between rumination and smartphone overuse is highly complex. As Shuna remarks, “counsellors and policymakers should consider the motivations underlying excessive smartphone use in designing ruminators' interventions to overcome maladaptive or addictive smartphone-use habits.”

While smartphones offer many benefits, it is important to be aware of how they may also impact mental health, and be mindful of smartphone usage patterns to maintain overall wellbeing.

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