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Study links anxiety to teen cell phone use

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 that that 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 to 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 ages 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 that 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 University of North Texas who has studied cell phone use.

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 the 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. The majority 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 that 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 to students in the bottom third of cell phone users.