A student on their phone surrounded by books and technology

What's the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship to your phone?

What's the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship to your phone?

UOW researchers discovered smartphone addiction is worse when we use the screens in a meaningless way

How will you read this story? Probably on your smartphone. And what's the first thing you lay your eyes on in the morning? Possibly, a smartphone too. We've grown so attached to this piece of technology that it's now tightly interwoven with all aspects of our lives: school, work, family management, socialising, entertainment and more. 

But how much daily use of smartphones is still okay, and how much is bad for you? A multidisciplinary team from the University of Wollongong's (UOW) School of Health and Society has just finalised its studies on smartphone addictions and health impacts, and the results are a little different to what we've been told until recently.

“We came to the conclusion that as much as excessive smartphone use is bad for us, it's most harmful to our health if we're using the screens in purposeless and compulsive ways,” Dr Hassan Hosseinzadeh, a senior public health lecturer and the lead researcher on these projects, said.

UOW social scientists Dr Hosseinzadeh, Dr Zubair Ahmed Ratan, Dr Anne-Maree Parrish and Mohammad Alotaibi, compared the data on the relationship between smartphone use and health from three countries – Australia, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. They realised that compulsive smartphone users were much more likely to develop various poor health outcomes – depression, anxiety, musculoskeletal pain and insomnia – when they used their phones in an inappropriate, unhealthy way.

“The difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship to the screen is often blurred. Rather than the amount of time spent on the phone, we should look at the behavioural patterns of use. For example, being on the phone at work, checking email or writing notes is fine. But when you do that during a family dinner or when meeting with friends, it can signify smartphone addiction,” Dr Hosseinzadeh added.

According to UOW researchers, smartphone addiction – in a behavioural, not clinical sense – means that you're not able to put your phone away when needed; that it controls your daily practices. One of the most harmful consequences of excessive screen time is the lack of physical activity.

“We found out that over 60 per cent of Saudi Arabian students were addicted to their phones. This results in high levels of obesity because they lack the time and motivation to eat healthy foods and exercise,” Dr Hosseinzadeh explained.

So how to combat phone addiction? Dr Hosseinzadeh and his team believe that simply prescribing digital detox won't work.

“We live in such an interconnected world that it's impossible just to quit. People from the fashion industry cannot delete TikTok or Instagram, just as academics like myself cannot simply quit using Zoom. We need these tools, and we need to use them smartly, not compulsively,” the researcher said.

So rather than going for full digital detox, it's more worthwhile establishing clear boundaries – for example, not using social media two hours before sleep in the evenings or only reaching for the phone an hour after waking up. Small changes have a higher chance of becoming healthy habits and contributing to our wellbeing.


‘Smartphone Addiction and Associated Health Outcomes in Adult Populations: A Systematic Review’, by Ratan Z., Parrish A-M., Zaman S., Alotaibi M., Hosseinzadeh H. is published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2021, 18(22), 12257; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182212257