Nearly one in five young adults in Ontario showed moderate to severe problems in their use of smartphones and other electronic devices, including an uncontrollable need to use them, a new survey suggests.
As part of a research project, scientists from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto surveyed about 3,000 adults across Ontario in 2015 to identify trends in the use of alcohol, drugs and tobacco and to flag problematic behaviours.
The hospital's researchers recognized that use of electronic devices has skyrocketed over the last decade and they wanted to explore the emerging issue of problematic use.
To that end, for the first time in 2015, researchers asked about the growing use of electronic devices, which includes smartphones and tablets as well as computers and video game consoles.
"Greater screen time doesn't necessarily mean that you have a problem. It's about how that use and those many hours affect other aspects of your life and to what extent you're able to cope with that," said Hayley Hamilton, a research scientist and co-principal investigator with the CAMH Monitor report.
"Research has shown that there might be a relationship between your problematic use, this uncontrollable need to use it, and missing out on other activities."
Among respondents aged 18 to 29, almost 19 per cent indicated moderate to severe problematic use of their devices, compared with 2.2 per cent of those aged 30 and older.
Those surveyed were asked six questions, such as if they felt growing tension or anxiety that can only be relieved by using an electronic device, having family members express concern about your amount of screen time, tried to cut back or missing school, work or other important social activities because of use, in the past 12 months.
Any problematic use was defined as one or more symptoms or yes answers. Those who answered yes to three or more of the questions were considered to be in the moderate severe category.
Based on the responses, Hamilton's team estimates 716,000 adults in the province fall into the moderate and severe category for problematic use of electronic devices.
Hamilton said she was surprised and concerned about the extent of problematic use. In total, seven per cent of adults reported three or more symptoms.
"We all appreciate our electronic devices, and it would be difficult for us to live without them," she said.
"But I think that the takeaway is to just be aware of the use, to recognize there are individuals who have problems and have been impacted negatively by their use, and it's important to think about how you're using your device."
- Be aware of how you're using devices and for what purpose.
- Take breaks and set limits on use.
- Think about how you feel before and after using a device.
Earlier this year, CAMH released a similar report on how greater use of social media by young people is linked with a greater likelihood of low self-esteem. Cyberbullying, exposure to negative comments and images are all factors, Hamilton said.
The CAMH Monitor is a collection of survey data that has been published every two years for almost 40 years. The researchers expect the findings apply across Canada.
With files from CBC's Amina Zafar