Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Nearly a third of young Emiratis 'addicted' to mobiles, university study finds

Survey suggests UAE may have an issue with 'problematic' smartphone use, which can be linked to depression

Zahir Vally, who carried out the study which has shown high levels of problematic mobile phone use among Emirati students. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Zahir Vally, who carried out the study which has shown high levels of problematic mobile phone use among Emirati students. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Almost a third of young Emiratis may be addicted to their smartphones, according to a psychologist who fears technology is fuelling depression and stifling social skills.

New research carried out by academics at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) also suggested a link between overuse of mobile phones and low self-esteem and depression, conditions that were rife among the sample of university students who were the focus of the study.

It was found that on average, the 18 to 33-year-olds at the Al Ain campus reported using their phones for more than seven hours per day.

Just 11.7 per cent said they thought their use of their phone was “problematic”, when asked directly.

However, when their responses to other questions were analysed, it was found that 29 per cent were using their phones “in a manner that could be characterised as dependent and potentially addictive.”

The findings were set out in the Addictive Behaviours Reports journal.

The results suggested that smartphone addiction in the UAE may be even higher than in other countries where comparable research has been carried out, mainly in Europe and the Far East. A study in Lebanon last year found that 20.2 per cent there had a problem with smart phone use.

“A lot of other literature tells us that obsession or addictive tendencies towards technology emerges in a context where there is a rapidly developing economy, which is precisely what’s happened here,” said Zahir Vally, assistant professor in psychology and counselling at UAEU who conducted the research.

“People who have experienced upwards social mobility over a short period of time, or have high disposable income, can have a fascination with everything that’s cool and innovative. The sample was young adults, where addictive tendencies also tend to be higher.

“We know that problematic use of smartphones tend to have associations with depressive symptoms and low self-esteem. In our study we found that was the case as well.”

The research saw 350 students at the university take part in the survey. Most were aged between 18 and 22 with around three quarters of those questioned female. They were asked questions about their smartphone use and also completed surveys designed to assess their mental health.

A recent review of research found that smartphone addiction in other countries was around 19 per cent, significantly lower than the UAE findings, although the younger ages of those participating in the UAE survey may have affected the results.

Smartphones have taken hold on our lives. Subhash Sharma for The National
Smartphones have taken hold on our lives. Subhash Sharma for The National

In a concerning finding, it was found that almost seven in ten of the students surveyed, 68.6 per cent, were deemed to have been at a high risk of depression, based on an internationally-respected survey. Around 15 per cent were judged to have low self-esteem.

Although there is a link between mental health conditions and problematic smartphone use, it is not yet known whether overuse of the devices are the cause of psychological problems, or a symptom. Either is possible, according to Mr Vally.

I do wonder whether or not human beings are progressively losing social skills, the ability to connect and have a conversation. These are skills that we have the potential to lose

Zahir Vally, UAE University

“People who tend to be depressed might seek to engage in excessive smartphone use as a means of managing their symptoms,” he said. “They might try to create a virtual social world if the real world is something they feel they are unable to engage in.

“Or the opposite could be true – someone who engages in excessive smart phone use might then develop depression because it might lead to, for example, a lack of sleep. Untangling which comes first is quite a complex thing but it’s something that needs to be studied in the future.

Mr Vally, 38, who has lived in the UAE for three years, advised parents to monitor screen time in young children in an attempt to stop them developing problems in later life.

“Of course, there are benefits [to smartphones] as well,” he said. “But parents should be aware of what their kids are using their phones for. They should also monitor time usage. Parents should use judgement in terms of what constitutes excessive use.

“If children are using their phone to the detriment of other stuff – they are refusing to play outside in the fresh air or engage in face-to-face time because they prefer screen time – then that’s an indication that there is something not right.

“I do wonder whether or not human beings are progressively losing social skills, the ability to connect and have a conversation. Part of connecting with someone is about body language, it’s about eye contact, non-verbal cues.

“These are skills that we have the potential to lose. I think it’s something we should be concerned about.”

Updated: June 3, 2019 04:19 PM

SHARE

SHARE