Using smartphones for mental disengagement

Recent research findings have shown that problematic smartphone use is on the rise across the globe. Given that problematic smartphone use is associated with mental (e.g., depression) and physical (e.g., obesity) health issues, it is critical to uncover the risk factors of problematic smartphone use to facilitate the development of useful interventions. 

In view of the above, Shuna Khoo Shi Ann, a fourth-year student PhD in Psychology student, conducted research to deepen the understanding on how some traits or risk factors would lead to one’s excessive or problematic smartphone use.

Her research paper "Mental Disengagement Mediates the Effect of Rumination on Smartphone Use: A Latent Growth Curve Analysis" received an 'Honorable Mention' at the recent RISE Research Award by the Association for Psychological Society (APS), one of the largest and most prestigious Psychology conferences in the US.

On receiving the award, Shuna said “I feel incredibly encouraged and blessed to receive this award. It is a testament to the importance of this research topic and a recognition of the efforts my advisor and I have put into this study. I am thankful to God, my loved ones – my husband Jonathan, my family and friends, my advisor Professor Yang Hwajin, and APS for this award.”

Shuna’s research showed that ruminators - people who experience uncontrollable, constant, and repetitive thoughts about past or future events - tended to be heavier smartphone users. In addition, she found that the reason why ruminators overuse their smartphones is because they tended to use their smartphones for mental disengagement. For example, they used their smartphones to watch movies or play games to replace their ruminative thoughts about past/future events.

Shuna also examined whether ruminators relied on their smartphones for problem-focused or socioemotional coping. It is commonly believed that smartphones could be used for problem-solving (e.g., researching solutions about a specific problem) or used to elicit socioemotional support (e.g., texting a friend to discuss about a problem). Interestingly, she found that ruminators did not particularly use their smartphones for problem-focused or socioemotional coping.

These results led her to believe that the use of smartphones for mental disengagement may have a positive reinforcing effect because ruminators are relieved from the negative repetitive thoughts when they use their smartphones. On the other hand, the use of smartphones for problem-solving or socioemotional coping could have caused one to spiral into deeper ruminative thoughts about the problem on hand; for instance, researching deeply about a possible health issue could cause one to become more ruminative of the specific symptoms of a grave illness. 

A key strength of the study is its use of objective smartphone data. Many existing studies have relied on self-reported smartphone use. For example, some researchers asked their participants to recall their smartphone use in a day. However, findings have shown that such recalling of smartphone use is unreliable and inaccurate. Therefore, for her study, she used screen time monitoring applications to capture participants’ smartphone use data objectively. The strong methodology and advanced statistical method employed were recognised by one of the top-tier technology and psychology journal Computers in Human Behaviour.

On the potential impact of her research, Shuna said “Counsellors and policymakers should consider the motivations underlying excessive smartphone use in designing interventions for ruminators to overcome possible maladaptive or addictive smartphone-use habits. By highlighting the need to consider the motivations that underlie smartphone use, our findings imply potential ways ruminators could use to regulate their excessive smartphone use to avoid adverse outcomes, which may have a crucial impact on their happiness.”

Looking ahead, Shuna shared that given that smartphone use is often driven by social networking and media use, she has since expanded her research to look at social networking use (e.g., Facebook, Instagram). Currently, she is researching on how social networking use implicates one’s perception of self and possible intervention methods to alleviate the ill-effects of social networking.

On the SMU PhD in Psychology programme, Shuna said that it is well designed to provide rigorous intellectual and research training to its students. “Although the programme can be challenging intellectually and emotionally, the faculty members and my course mates provided great academic and social support in this journey,” she added.

Upon completing your PhD studies, she aims to further her research on intervention methods that can alleviate ill-effects of smartphone and social networking use. “I am keen to work with like-minded scholars and organisations to ensure that we maximise technology use while minimising any negative effects on ourselves!” she enthused.