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Study: Teens' heavy use of cell phones may signal troubles

Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2006 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 23, 2006 at 9:00 p.m.

The teen obsession with yakking, text messaging and ring tone swapping on their cell phones might mean more than a whopping phone bill. For the most crazed, it's a sign of unhappiness and anxiety, according to a new medical study.

A survey of 575 high school students found the top third of users - students who used their phones more than 90 times a day - frequently did so because they were unhappy or bored. They scored significantly higher on tests measuring depression and anxiety compared with students who used their phones a more sedate 70 times daily.

The study, presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Toronto, was among the first to explore the emotional significance of teens' cell phone habits as the device becomes more entrenched in today's youth culture.

Two of every five youths in the United States from age 8 to 18 own a cell phone, according to a recent survey. Students in grades seven through 12 spend an average of an hour a day on their cell phones - about the same amount of time they devote to homework.

Some earlier studies involving college students have suggested a link between heavy cell phone use and depression. Other research has shown students incorporate cell phones into their personal identities.

For teens, cell phones were "not just objects or communications tools. They were portals for being in touch with other people - extensions of themselves," said Christina Wasson, an anthropologist at the University of North Texas who has studied cell phone use.

Dr. Jee Hyan Ha, lead author of the latest report, said heavy cell phone users involved in his study weren't clinically depressed.

Rather, Ha said, the students probably were suffering from some serious cases of teen angst. The youths may have been unhappy because of a problem in their lives or anxious about their social status.

"They are trying to make themselves feel better by reaching out to others," he said.

Ha, a psychiatrist at Yongin Mental Hospital in South Korea, surveyed students attending a technical high school in that country about their cell phone habits and attitudes. Most of the participants were boys, and their average age was 15.

The heaviest users were communicating with their phones on average about every 10 minutes during waking hours. Most of their usage was in text messages. They continually checked their phones for messages and often became irritated when people didn't call them right back.

Based on the popularity of the devices in South Korea, where three-quarters of residents have cell phones, Ha expected to find students had become addicted to their phones.

"I thought that there would be some kind of craving, but that is not what I saw," he said.

Instead, Ha found cell phone use appeared linked to self-esteem.

Students in the highest third of users scored significantly worse on scales measuring depression, anxiety and "alexithymia," or the ability to express emotion, compared with students in the bottom third of cell phone users.

Ha used a psychological test to measure the mental state of the students. In the test, a score of 21 marked a clinical depression. The heaviest cell phone users scored 12, well below that point, while the lighter users came in at 7.

The heavy users also showed in the tests that they struggled more with self-identity issues versus the lighter users.

While cell phone use in South Korea is higher than in the U nited States, Ha said he believed the findings applied to American teens.

James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University, said Ha's findings were not surprising.

"A central concern for teenagers is being in touch with friends and drawing boundaries about who's in and who's out," he said.

"People who are anxious and depressed are concerned about whether they are in or out and naturally often look at their cell phones to see if they've gotten answers to the text messages they sent out."

Dr. Mark DeAntonio, a clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCLA, said it was difficult to assess the South Korean study because its statistical measures were not widely used in the U nited States.

However, he said the general point of the study was worth noting.

For anxious teens, text messaging can become a substitute for face-to-face communication, DeAntonio said.

"You want to be sure that you are not reinforcing social isolation," he said.

Dr. Bruce Spring, assistant professor of Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said that in some cases, light or no use of a cell phone might actually be a more serious warning sign.

"Teens who are really anxious and depressed won't be sending messages or making calls," he said.

This story appeared in print on page 1

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