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Smart-phone fever widespread in Middle East universities

Published online 26 October 2023

Study measures dependence on mobile phones and finds 70% of students can’t cope without them

Mohamed Mansour

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Nomophobia, an excessive attachment to mobile phones, has reached fever pitch among university students across the Middle East, according to a new study.

The study enlisted 5,720 students from across five countries and sought get insights on mobile phone use patterns. The participants, 2813 students from Egypt, 1509 students from Saudi Arabia, 766 students from Jordan, 432 students from Lebanon, and 200 students from Bahrain, used their phones for 186.4 minutes every day.

The survey’s 20 questions aimed to glean whether mobile use patterns met the World Health Organisation’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD) criteria for substance dependence syndrome, and investigated participants’ intense desire for phone use, impaired control over this desire, tendencies for social withdrawal, decreased pleasure, and harmful phone use.     

The highest mobile phone dependence score was observed for students from Egypt whereas the lowest score was observed for students from Lebanon.

The most commonly observed ICD dependence criterion across the sample was impaired control at 55.6%. Meanwhile, harmful use was the least commonly observed criterion at 25.1%. Females and those who reported experiencing problems with anxiety or receiving treatment for it had a greater risk of developing mobile phone dependence with 15% and 75%, respectively.

Abdullah Nasser, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at Isra University in Jordan, and the first author of the study, says that “dependence scores differed significantly based on gender since female participants were more prone to this type of addiction”. In terms of age, “young adults were also more dependent”. Additionally, “different effects were observed for different fields of study, with higher prevalence of nomophobia among students majoring in non-medical fields,” according to Nasser.    

“Time spent on phones was highest for Bahraini students with approximately four hours per day and lowest for Egyptian students with two hours and forty minutes per day”, Nasser says.

Nomophobia can have negative consequences on mental health and productivity. Excessive phone use often leads to sleep disturbances, decreased face-to-face social interactions, and reduced productivity at work and school, according to the study.

In the Middle East, the percentage of internet users as estimated in the study was up to 95.7% in Saudi Arabia (population: 35.08 million), 99% in Bahrain (population: 1.72 million), 78.2% in Lebanon (population: 6.8 million), and 57.3% in Egypt (population: 103.3 million), and 66.8% in Jordan (population: 10.24 million).

Active social media users were 79.3%, 87%, 64.3%, 47.4%, and 61.5% of the population in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, respectively.

Most students report using mobile phones to help them overcome feelings of inferiority, helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression. They also speak of feeling upset in the morning when they cannot find their phones and becoming irritated when told to cut down on phone usage.

The survey revealed that up to 50% of students could not stop using their phones, 47% expected this pattern of use to become an addiction, and 40% said that attachment to their phones has reduced their face-to-face interactions with others. Around 39% of them also say that phone use has negatively impacted their relationships.

Alyssa Saiphoo, senior research associate at Ryerson University in Canada, who did not participate in the study, told Nature Middle East, “smartphones are an essential part of modern life, but it is important to find balance between staying in touch and going without connection from time to time”. “Nomophobia is a sign that we need to reevaluate our relationship with technology and prioritize our wellbeing and welfare”.

“Nomophobia is a new epidemic affecting millions of people around the globe”, Saiphoo adds. “As we continue to move forward into this digital age, it is important to be aware of the effects of nomophobia and to take the necessary steps to ensure that our phones enhance our lives rather than control it”.