The teen obsession with yakking, text messaging and ring-tone swapping on cellphones 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 South Korean high school students found 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 than students who used their phones a more sedate 70 times daily.
The study, presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Assn. in Toronto, was among the first to explore the emotional significance of teens' cellphone habits as the device becomes more entrenched in today's youth culture.
Two of every five youths in the U.S. from ages 8 to 18 have a cellphone, according to a recent survey. Students in grades seven through 12 spend an average of an hour a day on their cellphones -- about the same time they devote to homework.
Some earlier studies involving college students have suggested a link between heavy cellphone use and depression. Other research has shown that students incorporate cellphones into their personal identities.
For teens, cellphones were "not just objects or communications tools. They were portals for being in touch with other people -- extensions of themselves," said Christina Wasson, a University of North Texas anthropologist who has studied cellphone use.
Dr. Jee Hyan Ha, lead author of the latest report, said heavy cellphone users involved in his study weren't clinically depressed. Rather, he said, the students probably had some serious cases of teen angst.
The youths may have been unhappy because of a problem in their 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 cellphone habits and attitudes. Most of the participants were boys, and their average age was 15.
The heaviest users were communicating by cellphone on average about every 10 minutes during waking hours. The vast majority of their usage was in text messages. They continually checked their phones for messages and often became irritated when people didn't call right back.
Based on the popularity of the devices in South Korea, where three-quarters of residents have cellphones, 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 cellphone 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, than students in the bottom third.
On a psychological test with a score of 21 marking clinical depression, the heaviest cellphone users scored 12, well below that point, while the lighter users came in at 7. The heavy users also showed that they struggled more with self-identity issues than the lighter users.
Although cellphone use in South Korea is higher than in the U.S., Ha said he believed the findings applied to American teens.
James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University, said Ha's findings weren't surprising.
"A central concern for teenagers is being in touch with friends and drawing boundaries about who's in and who's out," he said. "People who are anxious and depressed are concerned about whether they are in or out and naturally often look at their cellphones to see if they've gotten answers to the text messages they sent out."
Dr. Mark DeAntonio, a clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCLA, said it was difficult to assess the South Korean study because its statistical measures were not widely used in the U.S.
However, he said the general point was worth noting. For anxious teens, text messaging can become a substitute for face-to-face communication, DeAntonio said.
"You want to be sure that you are not reinforcing social isolation," he said.
Dr. Bruce Spring, assistant professor of USC's Keck School of Medicine, said that in some cases, light or no use of a cellphone might be a more serious sign.
"Teens who are really anxious and depressed won't be sending messages or making calls," he said.