Smart phones and the pandemic

Smart phones and the pandemic

What does the Covid-19 pandemic have to do with people’s use of smart phones?

Perhaps you’ve guessed. Not only did people’s use of smart phones increase during the covid lockdowns, but so did their problematic use of smart phones.

Now there’s research from Germany showing a link between people’s problematic smart phone use during the pandemic and low sense of control, fear of missing out and repetitive negative thinking.

The research was conducted by Julia Brailovskala from the Mental Health Research and Treatment Center at Ruhr University. She and her colleagues conducted an online survey of 516 smart phone users aged 18 and over during April and May of 2021. The results were published in December.

The study found that problematic smart phone use was strongly linked to a low sense of control and fear of missing out. They wrote, ‘...individuals who experience loss of control of important life events could be at risk for enhanced levels of FoMO [fear of missing out]. To reduce this negative emotional state, they could consequently engage with their smartphones. The gratification experienced by this behavior could contribute to habit formation of prolonged smartphone use. In the longer-term, this might foster impulsive use and the development of PSU [problematic smartphone use].’

The good news is that this pattern can be changed. The study found that people who engaged in meaningful leisure activities, including sport, during the pandemic had a greater sense of control and this resulted in a lower fear of missing out and less problematic smartphone use.

The study also found a link between problematic smartphone use and repetitive negative thinking. The authors suggested that ‘worry and rumination … could foster the negative mood and thoughts involved with FoMO [fear of missing out], and therefore contribute to PSE [problematic smartphone use].

To counteract the pattern of repetitive negative thinking, the authors suggested the practice of mindfulness—paying attention to the present moment. They pointed out that previous research showed that ‘mindfulness can contribute to the reduction of the negative impact of intensive social media use on mental health and on work performance, and it can also reduce problematic social media use.’

The research casts light on how smart phone users can better engage with mobile phone technology.

‘Thus, activities—for instance physical and mindfulness exercises … - that allow positive experiences in the offline world and thus contribute to the increase of sense of control, reduction of RNT and FoMO might foster less PSU.’

Brailovskala, J et al, ‘From low sense of control to problematic smartphone use severity during Covid-19 outbreak: The mediating role of fear of missing out and the moderating role of repetitive negative thinking’, PLoS ONE, Dec 22, 2021,,

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