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Prevalence of Problematic Smartphone Usage (PSU) and associated mental health outcomes amongst children and young people: A systematic review, meta-analysis and GRADE of the evidence

December 2019

Over the past decade, smartphone use has become widespread amongst today’s children and young people (CYP) which parallels increases in poor mental health in this group. Simultaneously, media concern abounds about the existence of ‘smartphone addiction’ or problematic smartphone use. There has been much recent research concerning the prevalence of problematic smartphone use is in children and young people who use smartphones, and how this syndrome relates to mental health outcomes, but this has not been synthesized and critically evaluated.

The authors, all from the King’s College London, UK aimed to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the prevalence of Problematic Smartphone Usage (PSU) and quantify the association with mental health harms.

Methods: A search strategy using Medical Subject Headings was developed and adapted for eight databases between January 1st 2011 to October 15th 2017. No language restriction was applied. Of 924 studies identified, 41 were included in this review, three of which were cohort studies and 38 were cross sectional studies. The mental health outcomes were self-reported: depression; anxiety; stress; poor sleep quality; and decreased educational attainment, which were synthesized according to an a priori protocol.

The studies included 41,871 CYP, and 55% were female. The median prevalence of PSU amongst CYP was 23.3% (14.0–31.2%). PSU was associated with an increased odds of depression (OR = 3.17; 95 %CI 2.30–4.37; I² = 78%); increased anxiety (OR = 3.05 95% CI 2.64–3.53; I² = 0%); higher perceived stress (OR = 1.86;95% CI 1.24–2.77; I² = 65%); and poorer sleep quality (OR = 2.60; 95% CI; 1.39–4.85, I² = 78%).

Conclusions: Problematic Smartphone Usage (PSU) was reported in approximately one in every four Children and Young People (CYP) and accompanied by an increased odds of poorer mental health. PSU is an evolving public health concern that requires greater study to determine the boundary between helpful and harmful technology use. Policy guidance is needed to outline harm reduction strategies.

Sohn, S., Rees, P., Wildridge, B. et al. Prevalence of problematic smartphone usage and associated mental health outcomes amongst children and young people: a systematic review, meta-analysis and GRADE of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry 19, 356 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-019-2350-x