Individuals dissatisfied with their bodies are more prone to smartphone addiction, study finds

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A recent study found that young people who are more dissatisfied with their bodies have an increased likelihood of developing smartphone addiction. Individuals more dissatisfied with their bodies seem to experience more intrusive imagery and to have a higher fear of negative evaluation. This might, in turn, make them turn to their phones more intensely. The paper was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Over the past two decades, smartphones have gained widespread popularity across the globe due to their convenience for a variety of tasks, from communicating with others to managing daily activities. However, this rise in popularity has been accompanied by an increase in usage patterns that can negatively affect one’s quality of life. Health professionals have coined the term “smartphone addiction” to describe these problematic patterns of smartphone use.

Smartphone addiction refers to the compulsive use of mobile phones, where individuals feel unable to reduce or control their screen time despite negative consequences on their personal, social, or work life. It is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with smartphones, leading to neglect of real-life interactions, physical discomfort, and psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. This addiction is fueled by the instant access to social media, games, and endless streams of information that smartphones enable, making it challenging for users to disconnect.

Previous studies have shown that individuals with more pronounced smartphone addiction symptoms tend to be more dissatisfied with their bodies. Researchers attribute this to the ability of users to post images of themselves on social media using smartphones. In doing this, they can select images in which they look their best and receive praise for them from other users.

Due to this, individuals, and particularly adolescents, dissatisfied with their bodies might develop symptoms of smartphone addictions as they attach progressively more personal importance to the praise their images receive on social media. In the same manner, these individuals would be likely to have a more pronounced fear of negative evaluation.

Study author Shiyu Liu and her colleagues wanted to explore whether the link between body dissatisfaction and smartphone addiction might be mediated by intrusive imagery and the fear of negative evaluation. Intrusive imagery are unwanted and distressing visual thoughts or mental images that repeatedly enter a person’s mind, often associated with anxiety or other adverse mental health conditions. Individuals differ in how often they experience them. The fear of negative evaluation is the fear of being judged negatively or criticized by others. Individuals with pronounced fear of negative evaluations may tend to avoid social situations. Extreme levels of this fear can seriously impair daily functioning.

The researchers surveyed 5,909 university students from four provinces in China—Chongqing, Guangdong, Shandong, and Zhejiang—recruited with the assistance of mental health counselors at university mental health centers. The survey was distributed via student WeChat groups. The participants’ average age was 20, ranging from 18 to 32 years, with 53% being female. The average body mass index of the students was 20, indicating a normal weight range.

In the survey, participants assessed their body dissatisfaction (using the Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction with Body Parts Scale), intrusive imagery (using the Intrusive Visual Imagery Scale), fear of negative evaluation (using the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale), and smartphone addiction (using the Smartphone Addiction Scale-Short Version), along with their age, gender, weight, and height (to calculate body mass index).

Results showed that younger students tended to have a bit more pronounced smartphone addiction, fear of negative evaluation, and intrusive imagery. However, older students tended to be a tiny bit more dissatisfied with their bodies on average. Male students tended to have higher body mass index values. Female students tended to be more dissatisfied with their bodies, reported more often experiencing intrusive imagery, had somewhat more pronounced fear of negative evaluation, and more pronounced symptoms of smartphone addiction.

As expected, individuals more dissatisfied with their bodies tended to have more pronounced smartphone addiction symptoms. Study authors tested a statistical model proposing that higher body dissatisfaction leads to more pronounced intrusive imagery. This, in turn, increases the fear of negative evaluation, leading to higher smartphone addiction. Results showed that such a state of relationships between these factors is indeed possible, but that there are direct links between them as well.

“In summary, our investigation highlights the essentiality of incorporating the mediating factors of intrusive imagery and fear of negative evaluation to comprehensively explicate the connection between body dissatisfaction and smartphone addiction in the Chinese university students’ population. The results further reveal that strategies aimed at addressing intrusive imagery and negative affect associated with the fear of negative evaluation may prove efficacious in ameliorating the harmful impact of body dissatisfaction on smartphone addiction,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the links between body perception and smartphone addiction. However, it should be noted that the study design does not allow any definitive cause-and-effect inferences to be drawn from the data. Additionally, the study participants were exclusively students. Findings on other age or demographic groups might not be the same.

The paper, “Body dissatisfaction and smartphone addiction: the mediation role of intrusive imagery and fear of negative evaluation”, was authored by Shiyu Liu, Wen Hy, Ying Yang, and Fahui Yang.

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