Researchers in Ohio have found that frequent use of cell phones by college students is tied to poorer academic performance, anxiety and unhappiness. This is according to a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The researchers, from the College of Education, Health and Human Services at Kent State University in Ohio, describe how they surveyed more than 500 college students about their cell phone use and compared their responses with their college grades and results of clinical tests they undertook for anxiety and life satisfaction or happiness.

Not decrying the usefulness of the smartphone to today’s college students, which allows them to stay in touch with family and friends and easily browse the Internet, the researchers suggest there is merit in considering what potential harms they may pose.

This is particularly relevant, especially as recent research like the Pew Center’s Internet and American Life Project suggests college students are the most rapid adopters of cell phone technology.

The majority of the students who took part in the study were undergraduates, equally distributed by class (freshman, sophomore, junior and senior), and there were also 82 self-reported majors.

First author Andrew Lepp, associate professor at Kent State, and colleagues compared the participants’ self-reported cell phone use against their college grades – the students gave them permission to obtain their cumulative college grade point average (GPA) from the university’s official records.

Their analysis showed that cell phone use was negatively linked to GPA – the higher the cell phone use, the poorer the grades – and positively linked to anxiety – higher cell phone use was linked to higher anxiety.

They also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that higher GPAs tended to correlate with more happiness, while more anxiety was linked to less happiness.

Anxiety and happiness were assessed with two well-known questionnaires for assessing mental health: the Beck’s Anxiety Inventory and the Satisfaction with Life (SWL) index.

Further statistical analysis (path analysis) on these associations encouraged them to suggest cell phone use is linked – via GPA and anxiety – to happiness.

They also found that these links were statistically highly significant.

However, it should be noted that the study was not designed to determine cause and effect, so no matter how good the statistics, they cannot show for certain that it is cell phone use that leads to anxiety, poorer grades and reduced happiness.

While it is plausible that spending a lot of time calling and texting affects academic performance, it could equally be argued that these results suggest students who are more anxious, perform less well in class, and are more unhappy are more likely to use cell phones.

So the most the researchers can claim from these findings, is as they cautiously note in their conclusions:

These findings add to the debate about student cell phone use, and how increased use may negatively impact academic performance, mental health, and subjective well-being or happiness.”

Earlier this year, two of the authors led a study that found a link between cell phone use and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Taking the studies together, and the gathering weight of similar evidence, the researchers say it is probably a good idea for students nevertheless to review how they are using their smartphones and just think about whether it is interfering with their performance, mental and physical health, overall well-being and happiness.