College Students Experiencing Symptoms of Digital Addiction

April 23, 2018
cell phone use

College students who used their smartphones most frequently reported higher levels of feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, and anxious—symptoms suggestive of digital addiction, according to a recent study published in NeuroRegulation.

“When students enter a classroom, during class breaks, or after class, they are continually texting, scrolling, clicking, or looking at their smartphone instead of engaging with the people next to them,” wrote Erik Peper, PhD, and Richard Harvey, PhD, of San Francisco State University in California. “The same habits exist outside the classroom, whether they are leaning against the walls in the hallways, walking between classes, eating pizzas, or standing on the bus.”

The researchers equated smartphone overuse to other forms of substance abuse, pointing out that behavioral addiction leads to the formation of neurological connections in the brain.

Is the Prevalence of Internet Addiction Underestimated?

The study was based on a survey of 135 undergraduate students at San Francisco State University. In addition to depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, and loneliness (also called “phoneliness”) identified in some students, researchers discovered that these students regularly multitasked while studying, attending class, and during meals and downtime. Besides limiting how well tasks can be performed, constant multitasking cuts in on needed time for students to relax and regenerate, the researchers wrote.

The study blames the tech industry’s desire to increase profits through clicks gleaned from notifications, vibrations, and other phone alerts as a major contributor to digital addiction. However, smartphone users can train themselves away from constant use by turning off notifications, responding to email and texts only at specific times, and scheduling uninterrupted periods to focus on self-reflection and regeneration, researchers explained.

“There is a simple aphorism that says: ‘Pay attention to shift intention,’ ” the researchers wrote, “suggesting that training related to better intentional behaviors may allow breaking the cycle of smartphone addiction.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Peper E, Harvey R. Digital addiction: increased loneliness, anxiety, and depression. NeuroRegulation. 2018;5(1):3-8.

Owens Viani L. Digital addiction increases loneliness, anxiety and depression [press release]. San Francisco, California: San Francisco State University; April 10, 2018.