A recently published study links problematic smartphone use to a user’s low tolerance for distress.

Published in Computers in Human Behavior, the study looked at 261 college students, using the severity of their anxiety and depressive moods as indicators of their “distress tolerance,” while simultaneously tracking their smartphone usage.

New Revelations

After a month, researchers found that a high tolerance for distress was inversely correlated with problematic smartphone usage: those who could better regulate their emotions were less likely to impulsively use their mobile devices.

The authors of the study—researchers at the universities of Toledo and Ulster—caution that it is only a first step. Besides the relatively small sample size and time frame, it was the first experiment of its kind: lead researcher Jon D. Elhai wrote that these connections “have not [yet] been examined,” and thus while the group’s work “novel,” it is far from conclusive.


There was a bright side, too. Mindfulness, it seems, is able to mediate these relations, decreasing problematic smartphone use for all types of people.

This accords with other researchers’ findings that “promoting mindfulness could…prove important in tackling [smartphone] addictions.”

To help with the cravings towards smartphone use, this study advised, pursue mindful movements such as “light stretching and other basic gentle movement.”

“Problematic Use” 

“Problematic” use of a smartphone is defined as having the motivation “to escape real-world problems and duties, and/or avoid negative emotion and affect.”

Mr. Elhai and others, in an earlier meta-analysis of the term, also note is “important not to overpathologize smartphone use,” which in many cases can be beneficial.


A related study, noting the connections between anxiety, depression and problematic smartphone use, sought to uncover the mechanisms mediating these relationships.

What they found was that a user’s proneness to boredom could predict their level of problematic use, though not use in general.

In other words, being prone to boredom made an individual more likely to use their phones as a method of distraction from real-world difficulties, but didn’t effect their level of use overall.

Researchers theorized that these users—with a low tolerance for stress and a penchant for boredom—would turn away from their assigned tasks and, in their absence, become bored, then turning to their cell phones to relieve that boredom.

Going Forward

Taken together, it appears as if a retreat from the pressures of reality—combined with an inability to keep oneself entertained—are an important factor in college-level user’s unhealthy smartphone use.

While the first variable jives with prior research finding that social anxiety is a predictor of problematic internet use—let’s not forget that smartphones are connected to the internet—the latter is a novel finding which raises new questions.

More than an inability to deal with an overbearing world, today’s youth may broadly lack the ability to deal with boredom. And new tech isn’t doing them any favors. After all, “Boredom,” writes The Atlantic’s Heather Horn, “is what the Internet exists, in part, to cure.”