Despite the increasing popularity of smartphones in our daily lives, their usage among college students has been broadly discouraged because ample studies demonstrate that this usage has a strongly negative impact on academic performance. This study strives to revisit this relationship by scrutinizing the distinctions among mobile applications. Based on a survey of more than 10,000 college students, our study offers robust evidence that, if used appropriately, smartphones can motivate better academic performance. Specifically, based on activity theory and psychological trait theories, we quantify the impacts of using six different mobile applications on students’ academic performance and detect their indirect impacts mediated by both nomophobia (the fear of being unavailable to mobile phones) and behavioral habits. Two kinds of poor sleep habits are investigated: late sleep and insomnia. Our results reveal positive, direct impacts of using mobile learning and news applications on academic performance and adverse effects of playing mobile games, as well as using social media, music and video, and entertainment book-reading applications. Notably, the use of mobile learning applications does not contribute to nomophobia. However, the other five types of mobile applications — social media, mobile games, music and video, entertainment book reading, and news — do.