COVID-19 anxiety symptoms associated with problematic smartphone use severity in Chinese adults

Authored By: Jon D. Elhai, Haibo Yang, Dean McKay, Gordon J.G. Asmundson

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the globe, researchers continue to identify widespread public distress coinciding with the pandemic. Although some distress about the virus is beneficial because it motivates people to engage in helpful behaviours such as social distancing, excessive distress can be harmful to individuals and society alike because it can lead to unhelpful behaviours (e.g., overcrowding in hospitals, panic buying).

Problematic smartphone use occurs when people experience substantial difficulty functioning in their social, work, or academic environments, due to excessive smartphone use. Researchers have identified a relationship between mental health distress, including experiencing elevated anxiety and depression, and problematic smartphone use.

Given the distress reported across the world, the purpose of the current study was to investigate whether there is a relationship between problematic smartphone use and increased anxiety about COVID, as well as general (i.e., not specific to COVID-19) anxiety and mood symptoms. Participants were 908 residents of a large Eastern Chinese city surveyed from late-February to mid-March, 2020. They completed online self-report measures that assessed problematic smartphone use, general anxiety and depression, and anxiety about COVID-19.

Results of the study showed a relationship between COVID-19 anxiety and problematic smartphone use; however, when the contributions of general anxiety and depression were accounted for, the relationship between COVID-19 specific anxiety and problematic smartphone use disappeared. In this final model, only general anxiety was significantly associated with problematic smartphone use.

These findings suggest that despite experiencing substantial concerns about COVID-19, people also experience anxiety about every day aspects of their life (e.g., finances, employment, social relationships) and these worries have not gone away (and may be exasperated) during the pandemic. Consideration of the effects of general anxiety as well as more COVID-specific anxiety will be important in developing a more nuanced understanding of the problematic smartphone use occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lay summary written by: Julia Mason.

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