Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Science


Health and Rehabilitation Sciences


Burke, Shauna M.


The purpose of this cross-sectional, survey-based study was to examine university students’ internet and smartphone use (including smartphone habits), internet- and social media-related risks, and satisfaction with life during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada. Four objectives were examined, including associations among the study variables, including demographic factors. Results revealed a significant increase in university students’ (N = 1,625; Mage = 22.4, SD = 5.1; 78.8% female) internet use from pre- to early-pandemic (p < .001). Approximately one in ten students reported experiencing internet-related incidents (e.g., bullying, harassment, etc.) during the pandemic. Smartphone use and habits were significantly (p < .001) positively correlated with social media risks, while smartphone use and social media risks were significantly (p < .001) negatively related to students’ satisfaction with life. Results are discussed in the context of existing literature in this area, and potential implications and future directions are presented.

Summary for Lay Audience

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased reliance on technology for school, work, communication, information, and social connection purposes. This has been particularly true for young people. Thus, the purpose of the present study was to examine, via a one-time online survey, university students’ self-reported internet use, internet-related incidents, smartphone use and habits, social media risks, and satisfaction with life during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada. Four specific research objectives were advanced, which included an examination of demographic factors (i.e., gender, ethnicity, education level, and age) and associations among the study variables. Undergraduate and graduate students from Ontario universities were recruited via social media and mass e-mails, and were invited to complete an online survey in March/April 2020. A total of 1,625 students (Mage = 22.4, SD = 5.1; 78.8% female) from 21 universities provided data for this study. Results revealed a significant increase in students’ internet use from pre- to early-pandemic, and that approximately one in ten students reported experiencing at least one online incident (e.g., bullying, harassment, etc.). With regard to smartphone habits, over 90% of students reported checking their smartphones right before going to bed and as soon as waking up. Results also showed that in comparison to male students, significantly more female students reported experiencing moderate/high social media risks (e.g., losing sleep, feeling anxious, etc.). Further, students classified as ‘high’ smartphone users and those who reported often or always engaging in specific smartphone habits were significantly more likely than those with lower use/habits to experience social media risks. Lastly, students who reported high smartphone use and experiencing more social media risks had significantly lower satisfaction with life scores than those who reported lower smartphone use and fewer social-media risks. Findings from this study contribute to the growing understanding of internet use and online experiences (including potential risks) among university students, both pre- and early-pandemic. Understanding university students’ online experiences has important health and safety implications, and is also important for educators, administrators, policymakers, and other stakeholders with an interest in students’ technology use, university experiences, and overall wellbeing.