Downwardly mobile? A brief look at cell phone addiction

“One in ten people say they are addicted to their smartphone, a poll has revealed. And more owners than ever are seeking expert help. The US study of 2,000 college students found ten per cent claimed to have a full-blown addiction to the gadgets. Eighty-five per cent constantly checked theirs for the time, while three-quarters slept beside it. Meanwhile counsellor Peter Smith reported a ten per cent increase in Brits seeking help for smartphone addiction at his clinic in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset. He said: ‘Smartphone users feel they’ve got more control to communicate with whoever they want, whenever they want. But ironically, it’s that sense of control that creates the anxiety. It’s made younger people more reliant on maintaining those contacts – which can create issues from bullying, to being marginalised and excluded. People lose track of time, becoming socially isolated and before they know it, can’t stop. Not having your phone raises your heart rate and signs of panic. These symptoms are almost identical to alcoholism or addiction to gambling, food or drugs” (The Sun, March 21, 2013)

The news report above appeared in The Sun newspaper last week, and as part of that article I was asked to devise a 10-item ‘smartphone addiction test’ for Sun readers which I did (and can be found at the end of today’s blog). As regular readers of my blog will be aware, I have been studying ‘technological addictions’ for over two decades and I coined the term ‘technological addictions’ in a paper I wrote back in 1995. Although I have published a lot of papers on various technological addictions (e.g., slot machine addiction, video game addiction, internet addiction, etc.), I have only ever published one study on mobile phone addiction (with some of my research colleagues in Ramon Llull University, Barcelona, Spain).

Our study was published last year in the Anales de Psicologia, and comprised 1,879 students from Catalonian educational institutions (322 students of Ramon Llull University, and 1,557 secondary school students). We surveyed the students using the 10-item ‘Questionnaire on Cell Phone Related Experiences’ (Cuestionario de Experiencias Relacionadas con el Movil [CERM]), a psychometric instrument developed by Dr. Marta Beranuy and her colleagues in 2009. The CERM examines two areas of cell phone use conflicts and communicative/emotional use.

Our study reported that frequent problems with cell phone use were reported by 2.8 % of the participants. Problematic use was greatest in the youngest age groups. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most used applications were text-messaging and making calls. We carried out a regression analysis and found that the types of cell phone use that contributed the most to problematic use were text-messaging and playing games, whereas making calls contributed the least. Our results suggest that very few young people have problems with cell phones, in contrast with the findings of previous studies in Spain that reported pathological cell phone rates of 7.9%-10.4%. Our results suggested that females have some difficulties with phone use. Other researchers have also reported that females use cell phones more than males, and perceive their use as more problematic than. We also noted in our paper that cell phones are becoming more varied in their use and new applications such as the playing of games appears to be more attractive to males.

Traditionally, the use of cell phones has been for communication and as such, the risk of problematic use was minimal. However, this risk of problematic use and/or addiction could be potentially higher for smartphones that include applications that promote the altering of user identity (e.g., gaming, social networking, etc.).

We also argued that some people may confuse habitual use of such technology as an addictive behaviour (when in reality it may not be). For instance, some people may consider themselves cell phone addicts because they never go out of the house without their cell phone, do not turn their cell phone off at night, are always expecting calls from family members or friends, and/or over-utilise cell phones in their work and/or social life. There is also the importance of economic and/or life costs. The crucial difference between some forms of cell phone use and pathological cell phone use is that some applications involve a financial cost. If a person is using the application more and is spending more money, there may be negative consequences as a result of not being able to afford the activity (e.g., negative economic, job-related, and/or family consequences). High expenditure may also be indicative of cell phone addiction but the phone bills of adolescents are often paid for by parents, therefore the financial problems may not impact on the users themselves.

It is very difficult to determine at what point cell phone use becomes an addiction. The cautiousness of researchers suggests that we are not yet in a position to confirm the existence of a serious and persistent psychopathological addictive disorder related to cell phone addiction on the basis of population survey data alone. This cautiousness is aided and supported by other factors including: (a) the absence of any clinical demand in accordance with the percentages of problematic users identified by these investigations, (b) the fact that the psychometric instruments used could be measuring ‘concern’ or ‘preoccupation’ rather than ‘addiction, (c) the normalisation of behaviour and/or absence of any concern as users grow older; and (d) the importance of distinguishing between excessive use and addictive use.

All researchers agree in the necessity of longitudinal studies in order to check if perception of the problematic use of cell phones still exists over time. Many university students on the basis of self-report claim to have been ‘addicted’ to texting/instant messaging during some period of their adolescence. Our research suggests they are simply describing a period of their development with strong needs of social ties rather than a true addiction. If any of you reading this really want to know if you may have a problem with your smartphone, then you can take this test I devised. If you answer ‘yes’ to six or more of these statements, it may be indicative of a problematic and/or addictive use of your smartphone.

(1)  “My smartphone is the most important thing in my life”

(2)  “Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of time I spend on my smartphone”

(3)  “My smartphone use often gets in the way of other important things I should be doing (working, education, etc.)”

(4)  “I spend more time on my smartphone than almost any other activity”

(5)  “I use my smartphone as a way of changing my mood”

(6)   “Over time I have increased the amount of time I spend on my smartphone during the day”

(7)  “If I am unable to use my smartphone I feel moody and irritable”

(8)  “I often have strong urges to use my smartphone”

(9)  “If I cut down the amount of time I spend on my smartphone, and then start using it again, I always end up spending as much time on my smartphone as I did before”.

(10) “I have lied to other people about how much I use my smartphone”

Just remember that excessive use does not necessarily mean addiction, and the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, and addictions take away from them.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beranuy, M., Oberst, U., Carbonell, X., & Chamarro, A. (2009). Problematic Internet and mobile phone use and clinical symptoms in college students: The role of emotional intelligence. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 1182–1187.

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Carbonell, X., Guardiola, E., Beranuy, M., & Belles, A. (2009). A bibliometric analysis of the scientific literature on Internet, video games, and cell phone addiction. Journal of Medical Library Association, 97(2), 102-107.

Beranuy, M., Chamarro, A., Graner, C., & Carbonell, X. (2009). Validacion de dos escalas breves para evaluar la adiccion a Internet y el abuso de movil. Psicothema, 21, 480-485.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 29, 2013, in Addiction, Compulsion, Cyberpsychology, Gender differences, Internet addiction, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Much appreciated on the links to the additional academic research. I’m trying to understand the academic research into digital media addiction, and it’s slow going as an amateur. Would love to see an update to this post, as I’m sure there’s been significant additions to the literature in the past three years. Thanks again!

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