Category Archives: I.T.

Voyeurs and their lawyers: Can ‘upskirting’ be addictive?

Over the past few months, ‘upskirting’ has been in the British news, particularly in relation to making it a criminal offence. A campaign initiated by freelance writer Gina Martin was started after she became a victim of upskirting. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, upskirting refers to taking a photograph (typically with a smartphone) up someone’s skirt without their permission. Martin published an account of her ordeal for the World Economic Forum in April 2018 and reported that:

“Last summer, I was standing in a crowd of 60,000, on a hot summer’s day in London, waiting for The Killers to come on stage, when a man – whose advances I’d rejected – took pictures of my crotch by putting his phone between my legs as I chatted to my sister blissfully unaware. A few minutes later, I saw one of his friends looking at an intrusive picture of a woman’s crotch covered by a thin strip of fabric. I knew it was me. I grabbed the phone off him and checked. Tears filled my eyes and I began drawing attention to him: ‘You guys have been taking pictures of my vagina! What is wrong with you!?’ He grabbed me and pushed his face in front of mine, bellowing that I give him his phone back. I didn’t…The police arrived and were lovely. I was, understandably, a mess and they patiently calmed me down. What the police then did was ask him to delete the images – my evidence – and then, they told me they couldn’t do anything. ‘We had to look at the image, and although it showed far more than you’d want anyone to see, it’s not technically a graphic image. There’s not much we can do. If you weren’t wearing knickers it would be a different story.’ I was completely humiliated and devastated”.

Following this incident, and because upskirting wasn’t an offence, Martin began a campaign to get the act criminalized. Upskirting is currently an offence in Scotland but not in England and Wales. Upskirting is one of many sexual acts that are present among those individuals that have a voyeuristic disorder. In an article for the Law Gazette in July 2017 (‘Fifty shades of sexual offending’), forensic psychologist Dr. Julia Lam made countless references to upskirting in an overview of voyeuristic disorder. She noted that:

“Voyeuristic Disorder is a paraphilic/psychosexual disorder in which an individual derives sexual pleasure and gratification from looking at naked bodies and genital organs, observing the disrobing or sexual acts of others…Instead of peeping in situ using high-powered binoculars, with advances in technology such as camera phones and pin-hole cameras, voyeurs can now record the private moments with their devices: taking upskirt photos of unsuspecting individuals on escalators, or filming women in various states of undress in toilets and changing rooms. Voyeuristic behaviour is on the rise…Learning theory suggests that an initially random or accidental observation of an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity, may lead to sexual interest and arousal; with each successive repetition of the peeping act reinforcing and perpetuating the voyeuristic behaviour”.

She reported that voyeurism is the most common type of sexual offence and that voyeurs can be men or women but that “men are commonly the perpetrators in the peeping acts/upskirt, with women being the victims”. She noted that the lifetime prevalence of voyeuristic disorder is around 12% among men and 4% in women, and that the causes of voyeurism are unknown. She then went onto say:

“The new vocabulary ‘upskirt’ is both a verb (the practise of capturing an image/video of an unsuspecting and non-consenting person in a private moment) and a noun (i.e. the actual voyeuristic photos or videos made; referred as “voyeur photography”)…While most voyeurs film for self-gratification (i.e. using upskirt materials for fantasy and masturbation), there are offenders who make upskirt photos and videos specifically for uploading onto the internet (e.g. fetish and pornographic websites and video-sharing sites like YouTube) for monetary profit…Upskirt is considered a ‘serious’ crime in Singapore as it intrudes upon the privacy of unsuspecting and non-consenting individuals. Offences typically take place on escalators, in fitting rooms, public toilets or shower rooms; with the offenders trying to capture what is underneath the ‘skirts’ or private moments of the victims with a recording device which may or may not be disguise”.

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She also said that in recent years in Singapore, she had assessed “a considerable number” of voyeurs that had engaged in upskirting and who were arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for their actions. Most of these criminal voyeurs were ‘first-timers’ (i.e., arrested and charged with upskirting for the first time), had a long history of engaging in excessive masturbation and pornography use, and that the offences were non-violent. However, she did note that although they may have been arrested for the first time, their interest in peeping and upskirting usually stemmed from adolescence. Dr. Lam also claimed that:

“Getting apprehended for [upskirting] is more a norm than an exception in this group, as it is just a matter of time that the offender would be careless or daring enough to invite apprehension. Police arrest usually serves as a final ‘wake-up call’ that breaks the offending pattern, accompanied with a great sense of shame and embarrassment. Many of these voyeurs are amenable to treatment…Most of the sufferers of Voyeuristic Disorder who came for my assessment reported their urges to upskirt and use the materials to masturbate as overwhelming, to the extent that they gave in to temptation without considering the grave consequences of their acts”.

Dr. Lam also talked about her treating upskirting voyeurs and recounted one case which she claimed was a compulsion. The case involved a male university student who was very sport active but who masturbated excessively whenever major sporting events or important exams were imminent as a coping strategy to relieve stress. Upskirting was another one of his coping strategies and he was eventually arrested for his behaviour. Dr. Lam then went on to report” 

“Every morning after he woke up, he would feel the urge to go out to find his ‘targets’. Although he knew it was very risky to take upskirt [photos] on MRT escalators, he felt compelled to satiate his urges and gratification, and was oblivious to his surroundings (e.g. passers-by security staff and CCTV) and the risk of being arrested. He could still feel the thrill and excitement, but he no longer enjoyed the act. It had become more like a compulsion…He was prescribed medication to manage his mood and urges to act out, and attended psychotherapy to work on his voyeuristic behaviour and learn more effective coping skills. He has since graduated from university, and has not breached the law with [upskirting] behaviour again”.

Dr. Lam, like other practitioners who treat sex offenders, often view extreme cases of voyeurism as a compulsion, obsession and/or an addiction. If extreme voyeurism (in general) can be seen as an addiction, there is no theoretical reason why upskirting couldn’t be viewed similarly. As far as I am aware, the case described by Dr. Lam is the only one in the academic literature of outlining and treating an individual with an upskirting disorder. As with other sexually non-normative behaviours I went online to see if there were any anecdotal accounts of addiction to upskirting and came across a few self-confessed accounts (particularly on The Candid Forum website):

  • Extract 1: “I’m not sure if you could help me. I suppose it’s an addiction. I am obsessed with women’s knickers and constantly try to look up women’s skirts, even schoolgirls. I know it’s wrong but I love to see the secrets. One day I will be caught and arrested. Am I a pervert?” (‘Andy’).
  • Extract 2: “I’m really starting to feel overwhelmed by this ‘addiction’ I have to upskirt videos…I just can’t seem to get enough, even when in the big picture, most of them are all the same. I have well over 3000 videos on my computer of just upskirts (not including other types of videos)…It’s also stressful to know that I may very well not get through them all, at least for a very long time (I still have yet to watch 1800 of them). There’s a lot of time involved in downloading them (waiting due to file hosting sites telling you [that] you have reached your daily limit etc., entering captcha codes). But all these videos actually amaze me at the same time, due to just how many times guys have gotten away with it…There’s a certain ‘wow’ factor I guess, but that also derives from the entire voyeur aspect of it to begin with, where a guy is able to creep up on a woman and she doesn’t even realize it…Do any of you share the same addiction as me, and do you want to get rid of it? (‘GD102’).
  • Extract 3: I used to be really addicted [to upskirting] until I made myself understand something you already know – once you’ve seen 200 asses, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s no point in wasting your time overindulging in the same thrill over and over again. Yeah, the excitement of seeing something you’re not supposed to see is hot as hell, but you have to set limits for yourself, and not try to fantasize too much about the upskirts you haven’t seen, and spend more time enjoying, and maybe sorting, the upskirts you already have. That’s what I’ve been doing lately” (‘Agent Ika’).
  • Extract 4: “[Upskirting] really does get repetitive. For me the thrill now comes from pretending I’m a director of a film – getting new angles, upskirts from the front, whole body shots with the upskirt still showing, and always including faceshots” (‘Stimulus’).

Obviously I have no way of knowing whether these online forum confessions are true (but they seem to be). Based on these extracts, there is certainly the possibility raised that upskirting may be addictive to a very small minority of individuals. Extract 2 was particularly interesting in that the individual had never engaged in upskirting himself but his ‘addiction’ to watching upskirting videos takes up so much time in his life.

Another source suggesting that upskirting may be an addictive activity comes from the details of those arrested and prosecuted. For instance, one infamous example in the UK (in 2015) was the case of Paul Appleby who managed to take 9000 upskirting photos in the space of just five weeks (suggesting that he was doing it all day every day to have taken so many photos). Appleby was finally caught when he was caught bending over to take a photo up a woman’s skirt in a Poundland shop. The Daily Mirror reported that:

“The tubby pervert, who was ‘addicted’ to snapping upskirts, fled the store after he was spotted…when [police] officers found his camera and iPhone a staggering 9,000 ‘upskirt’ images were discovered. The photos had been taken between November 1 and December 4 last year. [Appleby] admitted two counts of committing an act of outraging public decency…and was given a three-year community order…[Appleby] had been prosecuted for a ‘similar matter’ of outraging public decency in London in 2010. Alistair Evans, defending claimed Appleby had committed the crime for ‘sexual gratification’ and his behaviour was a ‘compulsion and an addiction’ he needed treatment for”.

Here, the mitigating factor for Appleby’s behaviour was that he was addicted to upskirting. The fact that Appleby did not receive a custodial sentence suggests the excuse of being ‘addicted’ to the behaviour led to the judge being more lenient. Another individual who avoided a custodial sentence for upskirting offences was Andrew MacRae who claimed he was addicted to sex. MacRae had amassed 49,000 upskirt photos and videos using hidden cameras at his workplace, on trains, and at the beach. He pled guilty to three counts of outraging public decency and seven counts of voyeurism. The judge said he would spare him jail if he was treated for his “compulsive voyeurism”. A report in the Daily Mail recounted what that Judge Jeremy Donne said:

“This was undoubtedly a sophisticated, organised, planned and long-running campaign of voyeurism – again with a significant degree of planning – and members of the general public, female commuters in the main, were caught by your voyeuristic activities. Your activities were undoubtedly despicable and will cause deep revulsion in all who hear them.  Women will undoubtedly feel a need to be protected from such behaviour by the knowledge that the courts will deal with offenders severely, and men will thereby be deterred from committing such offences. On the other hand, you suffer from an illness that can be treated and you have submitted to that treatment. You have features of sexual addiction disorder with disorders of sexual preference, namely voyeurism and fetishistic transvestism – all defined in the international classification of diseases. You continue to receive treatment from psychiatrists who consider you to be at low risk of re-offending”.

Another recent British case highlighted the ingenious methods used to aid upskirting. Here, Stafford Cant used spy cameras hidden inside one of his trainers, his key fob, and his wrist watch to engage in upskirting women (as well as filming the backs of their legs) who were shopping in a Cheshire village. Acting on a tip-off, his house was raided and the police found 222,000 videos and pictures dating back seven years. ‘Addiction’ was again used as a mitigating factor in the crimes (along with depression and anxiety disorders) but this time it was not addiction to voyeurism but an addiction to collecting things. However, unlike the two cases above, Cant was jailed for three years after pleading guilty to outraging public decency, voyeurism and possessing and distributing indecent images.

Although there is little psychological literature on upskirting, there appears to be anecdotal evidence that the behaviour (in the extreme) could perhaps be conceptualized as an addiction and/or compulsion among a minority of individuals. The cases of those that have been arrested and prosecuted demonstrate that upskirting behaviour was time-consuming given the sheer number of photos and videos amassed, and that the behaviour was ultimately problem-inducing and undesirable. Given that the relatively recent rise of upskirting appears to mirror the rise in the use of smartphones and spy equipment available at affordable prices, I expect to see more such cases to be written about in psychological and criminological journals in the years to come.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Fight The New Drug (2018). What’s “upskirting”, and how does porn culture feed this twisted trend? July 5. Located at: https://fightthenewdrug.org/whats-upskirting-and-how-does-porn-culture-feed-this-twisted-trend/

Jolly, B. (2015). Upskirt pervert who took 9,000 secret photos in just five weeks avoids jail. Daily Mirror, January 28. Located at: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/upskirt-pervert-who-took-9000-5058048

Keay, L. (2018). Live Nation executive who built-up sordid library of 49,000 upskirt pictures by filming women on trains, the beach and at work is spared jail as his wife stands by him. Daily Mail, January 5. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5239815/LiveNation-executive-Andrew-MacRae-avoids-jail-upskirt.html

Lam, J. (2017). Fifty shades of sexual offending – Part 1. The Law Gazette, July. Located at: http://v1.lawgazette.com.sg/2017-07/1910.htm

Martin, G. (2018). What happened to me was wrong. Time to make it illegal, too. World Economic Forum, April 9. Located at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/what-happened-to-me-was-wrong-time-to-make-it-illegal-too/

Petter, O. (2018). Upskirting: What is it and why are people trying to make it illegal” The Independent, June 18. Located at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/upskirting-explained-law-rules-criminal-offence-photos-skirt-consent-women-gina-martin-a8401011.html

Shepherd, R. & Smithers, D. (2018). The public school pervert who spent years secretly filming up women’s skirts in one of Britain’s wealthiest villages. Manchester Evening News, March 29. Located at: https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/alderley-edge-upskirt-film-pervert-14470375

The Strait Times (2016). Taking upskirt photos may be symptomatic of voyeuristic disorder. July 30. Located at: https://adelphipsych.sg/straits-times-taking-upskirt-photos-may-be-symptomatic-of-voyeuristic-disorder/

Wilson, H. (2004). Peeping Tom’s secret weapon. The Independent, July 8. Located at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/peeping-toms-secret-weapon-552402.html

Teenage pics: A brief look at ‘selfie addiction’

In March 2014, the Daily Mirror published the story of Danny Bowman, a teenage ‘selfie addict’ who allegedly took up to 10 hours a day taking 200 selfies, dropped out of school, and tried to kill himself when he was unable take the perfect photo of himself. Taking selfies has become a very popular activity, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults. However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph and can include the editing of the colour and contrast, changing backgrounds, and adding other effects, before uploading the picture onto a social media platform. These added options and the use of integrative editing has further popularized selfie-taking behaviour. From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action which allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance and is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism. In an interview for the Daily Mirror, Bowman said that:

“I was constantly in search of taking the perfect selfie and when I realised I couldn’t I wanted to die. I lost my friends, my education, my health and almost my life. The only thing I cared about was having my phone with me so I could satisfy the urge to capture a picture of myself at any time of the day. “I finally realised I was never going to take a picture that made the craving go away and that was when I hit rock bottom. People don’t realise when they post a picture of themselves on Facebook or Twitter it can so quickly spiral out of control. It becomes a mission to get approval and it can destroy anyone. It’s a real problem like drugs, alcohol or gambling. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve been through. People would comment on [my selfies], but children can be cruel. One told me my nose was too big for my face and another picked on my skin. I started taking more and more to try to get the approval of my friends. I would be so high when someone wrote something nice but gutted when they wrote something unkind. [Taking lots of selfies sounds trivial and harmless but that’s the very thing that makes it so dangerous. It almost took my life, but I survived and I am determined never to get into that position again.”

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While Bowman’s case is extreme, it doesn’t mean that obsessive selfie-taking is a trivial condition. Bowman was diagnosed as having (and eventually treated for) body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) which at its simplest level, is a distressing, handicapping, and/or impairing preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in body appearance that the sufferer perceives to be ugly, unattractive, and/or deformed. Bowman’s psychiatrist, Dr. David Veale (one of the world’s most foreknown experts on BDD) said that: “Danny’s case is particularly extreme. But this is a serious problem. It’s not a vanity issue. It’s a mental health one which has an extremely high suicide rate.”

To date, there has been very little research on ‘selfie addiction’ and most of what has been academically published (both theorizing and empirical research studies) has tended to come from psychiatrists and psychologists in India. The main reasons for this are that (i) no other country has more Facebook users than India, and (ii) India accounts for more selfie deaths in the world compared to any other country with 76 deaths reported from a total of 127 worldwide. For instance, the death on February 1, 2016, of the 16-year old Dinesh Kumar killed by a train in Chennai while taking a selfie was reported widely in the media.

In 2014, there were a handful of separate media reports all reporting that ‘selfie addiction’ had been recognized by psychologists and psychiatrists as a genuine mental disorder. On March 31, 2014, a news story appeared in the Adobo Chronicles website that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classed ‘selfitis’ (i.e., the obsessive taking of selfies) as a new mental disorder.

The article claimed that selfitis was “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy”. The same article also claimed there three levels of the disorder – borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”). The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world but it soon became clear the story was a hoax. However, many of the academic papers exploring the concept of ‘selfie addiction’ have reported the story as genuine.

Other academics claim in a rather uncritical way that ‘selfie addiction’ exists. For instance, in 2015, in an article in theInternational Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, Shah claimed that selfie-taking behaviour “classically fits” the criteria of addiction but then fails to say what these criteria are. He then goes on to argue that anyone taking more than 3-5 selfies a day “may be considered as a disease” and that spending more than 5 minutes taking a single selfie or more than 30 minutes per day may also be “considered as disease”. Such proposals add little to the credence of excessive selfie-taking being potentially addictive.

In a 2017 editorial entitled ‘Selfie addiction’ (in the journal Internet and Psychiatry), Singh and Lippmann asserted that knowing about the psychology of selfies and their consequences is important for both individuals and the communities in which they live. They claim that the taking of selfies can sometimes be “inconsiderate of other people, especially when ‘getting the perfect shot’ becomes an obsession”. They claim that excessive selfie clicking can become “a troublesome obsession and may be related to different personality traits” such as psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. More specifically, the argue that:

“Narcissistic people exhibit feelings of superiority and perfection, but also often harbor self-doubt. Those with psychopathy have little compassion about harming others. Persons with Machiavellian traits fulfill their wishes with diminished ethics. All three utilize social websites that allow posting and amending pictures. Individuals with low self-esteem, obsession, and/or hyperactivity also sometimes exhibit high rates of “snapping” selfies”.

In a very brief review of the literature on selfie-taking and mental health in a 2016 issue of the Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, Kaur and Vig concluded that selfie addiction was most associated with low self-esteem, narcissism, loneliness and depression. Also in 2016, Sunitha and colleagues also reported similar findings based on their review of selfie-taking in theInternational Journal of Advances in Nursing Management. In an online populist article in 2017 on the rise of the ‘selfie generation’, Tolete and Salarda interviewed a teen development specialist, Dr. Robyn Silverman about how and why adolescents might get hooked on selfie-taking. He said that teens “crave positive feedback to help them see how their see how their identity fits into their world. Social media offers an opportunity to garner immediate information…the selfie generation ends up agonizing over very few likes or one or two negative comments, as if these are the only metrics that will prove they matter. One can only imagine the vulnerability of their still fragile self-esteem in such an environment”.

Other academics have claimed that while the evidence for ‘selfie addiction’ being a social problem is lacking, it does not mean that it could not be a ‘primary pathology’ in times to come. However, there has been very few empirical studies that have examined ‘selfie addiction, and those that have been published suffer from many methodological weaknesses.

For instance, in a 2017 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, Gaddala and colleagues examined the association between Internet addiction and ‘selfie addiction’ among 402 Indian medical students (262 females). They reported a significant association between selfie dependence and internet dependence. However, they used Shah’s operationalization of ‘selfie addiction’ (the taking of three or more selfies a day; 4% of the total sample), therefore it is unlikely that very few of the participants would have been genuinely addicted to taking selfies.

Singh and Tripathi carried out a very small study on 50 Indian adolescents aged 12-18 years of age (28 females; average age 14.6 years) in 2017 (in the journal SSRN). They found that narcissism and hyperactivity were positively correlated with ‘selfie addiction’ whereas self-image was negatively correlated with ‘selfie addiction’. However, in addition to the very small sample size, the instrument used to assess selfie tendencies had little to do with addiction and simply asked questions about typical selfie behaviour (e.g., how many selfies a day/week are taken, how much time a day is spent taking selfies, are the selfies posted onto social media, etc.)

Finally, a 2017 study in the Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research by Kela and colleagues examined the more medical effects of excessive selfie-taking. In a survey of 250 Indian students aged 18-25 years (56% females), it was reported that 30% reported lower back ache, 15% suffered stress, 20%, suffered from cervical spondylitis, 25% suffered from headache, and 10% suffered from ‘selfie elbow’ (a tendonitis condition). However, it was unclear from the methodology described to what extent these effects were specifically attributable to selfie-taking.

Taking the academic literature as a whole, there is little evidence – as yet – that ‘selfie addiction’ exists although if stories like Danny Bowman are to be believed, it does appear at least theoretically possible for an individual to become addicted to such an activity.

(Note: some of this material first appeared in the following paper: Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health, 36(1), 3-5).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x.

Barakat, C. (2014). Science links selfies to narcissism, addiction, and low self esteem. Adweek, April 16. Located at: www.adweek.com/socialtimes/selfies-narcissism-addiction-low-self-esteem/147769

Bhattacharyya, R. (2017). Addiction to modern gadgets and technologies across generations. Eastern Journal of Psychiatry, 18(2), 27-37.

Gaddala, A., Hari Kumar, K. J., & Pusphalatha, C. (2017). A study on various effects of internet and selfie dependence among undergraduate medical students. Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, 5(2), 29-32.

Grossman, S. (2014). Teenager reportedly tried to kill himself because he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of his selfies. Time, March 24. Located at: http://time.com/35701/selfie-addict-attempts-suicide/

Gupta, R. & Pooja, M. (2016). Selfie an infectious gift of IT to modern society. Global Journal for Research Analysis, 5(1), 278-280.

Kaur, S., & Vig, D. (2016). Selfie and mental health issues: An overview. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 7(12), 1149-1152.

Kela, R., Khan, N., Saraswat, R., & Amin, B. (2017). Selfie: Enjoyment or addiction? Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research, 5, 15836-15840.

Lee, R. L. (2016). Diagnosing the selfie: Pathology or parody? Networking the spectacle in late capitalism. Third Text, 30(3-4), 264-27

Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). Selfies introduction – What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 19.

Shah, P.M. (2015). Selfie – a new generation addiction disorder – Literature review and updates. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 17, 602.

Singh, D., & Lippmann, S. (2017). Selfie addiction. Internet and Psychiatry, April 2. Located at: https://www.internetandpsychiatry.com/wp/editorials/selfie-addiction/

Singh, S. & Tripathi, K.M. (2017). Selfie: A new obsession. SSRN, 1-3. Located at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2920945

Sunitha, P. S., Vidya, M., Rashmi, P., & Mamatha, M. (2016). Selfy [sic] as a mental disorder – A review. International Journal of Advances in Nursing Management, 4(2), 169-172.

If phonely: Are you addicted to your mobile phone?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Debating Europe (DE) about smartphone addiction. I was asked four questions and my responses were transcribed, edited, and published on the DE website on July 11. Only the responses to two of the questions were published, so my blog today provides the full transcript of my interview. I have emboldened each of the four questions and my response follows each question.

Vicki worries about the impact of smartphones on children. She thinks that parents nowadays are too prone to buying the latest phones for their kids, without taking into consideration possible alternatives. What are the risks of children being addicted to their phones?

Well, first thing to say is that children and adults are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to a bottle. What we’re really talking about here is the application that people have on smartphones. Obviously, children now seem to getting smartphones at a younger and younger age. I’m often asked what is an appropriate age to give children smartphones. There is no right answer on this, but I certainly don’t advocate giving smartphones to children under the age of 11 years.

I think when children move to their secondary schools, most children in the class will have a smartphone, and to not give your child a smartphone can ostracise them from the class. The issue about smartphones in terms of excessive use is that sometimes parents do actually pathologise their children’s excessive smartphone use, particularly if they don’t use a smartphone much themselves. For me, the issue is whether their smartphone use interferes with the other important things in their lives?

There are typically four things I ask parents: One, is smartphone use affecting your child’s education and homework? Two, is their smartphone use affecting their physical education? Three. is their smartphone use affecting the chores you expect your children to do around the house? And, finally, does the smartphone use affect their face-to-face interaction with their friends? Typically, most parents, if they’ve answered honestly, will answer that the smartphone doesn’t affect any of those four domains. But if a parent does feel it’s affecting those four domains, then it is the parent’s responsibility to do something about it.

As a parent myself, I know that taking a smartphone off a child can be very difficult sometimes and can lead to negative reactions by the child. But at the end of the day, a parent is there to parent. They’re there to oversee their child’s development into – hopefully – a thriving adult who’s got all the capacities to go on in the world. Using smartphones, unfortunately or fortunately – depending upon your viewpoint – is now a natural thing and, particularly in teenage years, that is what children do. So I think it comes down to everything in moderation and parents absolutely have the right to restrict screen time and in extreme circumstances actually take the smartphones away.

smartphone-addiction

Stella thinks we’re being too negative about mobile phones. She thinks technology such as smartphones actually increases the sense of community and allows for expression of opinions. What would you say to her? Is she right to be so optimistic or should it be tempered?

It’s all about moderation. I personally think the advantages of smartphones far outweigh the disadvantages. I’m actually an unusual person. I actually gave using up my mobile phone a number of years ago, and I’ve now learned to live without one. But – to be honest – particularly for most teenagers, this is absolutely essential in their day-to-day social armoury. I don’t think there’s any argument that there should be a ban or a prohibition on smartphones because, as I said, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

The scientific research says that a very small minority seem to overuse their smartphones, particularly young people aged between 14-to-25 years. We’ve got teenagers, older adolescents and emerging adults who heavily use their smartphones. I think most of that use is what I call ‘habitual use’. It’s not ‘problematic use’, it’s just something that people get into a habit of doing, always looking at their mobile phones even when there hasn’t been a ‘ping’ or a beep to say there’s been a notification or a message. People still automatically look at their smartphone even if there’s no sound. It’s almost like a classically conditioned response.

I think more people pathologise use. For most people, their smartphone use is not pathological in any way, shape, or form. It’s just that, sometimes, excessive use is pathologised by people who don’t like mobile phones. I notice mobile phones when I’m in a restaurant or a pub, because I don’t have one myself. I’m actually very conscious when somebody else is looking at their mobile phone during mid-conversation, and that has led to this phrase ‘phubbing’, which is ‘phone snubbing’ and which goes on all the time. But that, in and of itself, is not an addiction and is not excessive.

I certainly think that in terms of the question asked, I do think there’s a lot of good things to say about mobile phones and I wouldn’t want to be in a position where they’re not around because for some people they’re life-savers and for some it’s part of their social armoury. I do think that the way social media operators use their psychological hooks to get people to look at their phones is something where the onus is on the social media operators rather than the individuals.    

Reader ‘Randomguy2017’ is sceptical of the benefits of technological progress. He argues that depression and anxiety are higher than ever, as our addiction to smartphones grow. Is there a link between the two?

As far as I’m aware – and I may be wrong – there is no scientific longitudinal study that has looked at the relationship between smartphone use, depression and anxiety. I certainly think it’s a case where it’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ thing. If you’re somebody that’s prone to anxiety or depression, you’re more likely to use smartphones or the Internet as a way masking depression and anxiety. There’s also some research that suggests excessive use of smartphones and the Internet can lead to social anxiety and depression. So, like I said before, there’s a bit of ‘chicken and the egg’ here. It may be also be that there is a bit of both.

Again, I would really stress that the number of people that would be genuinely addicted to applications on their smartphone are very few and far between. I think what we’ve got more now is that the excessive smartphone use sometimes leads to problematic behaviour. It could be that you’re looking at your smartphone while you’re driving, or you prefer to look at your smartphone rather than talk to somebody in front of you face-to-face. Those kind of things, they are what I would say are ‘problematic’ and annoying and, in the case of driving, could actually be fatal, but none of those are necessarily addictive or pathological.

However, I do think we have to put these things into perspective. The vast majority of people that use smartphone-based technologies, it’s something that’s life-affirming, life-enhancing, that adds to their life. But that doesn’t take away the fact that small minority out there that their use of smartphones takes away from other important things in their life. And in a tiny minority of cases the application that people are engaging in online whether its social networking, gaming, or gambling might be potentially addictive. But I take a holistic approach in this, in that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Emil is concerned about the privacy implications of our reliance on phones. Is he correct in assuming hackers can easily access what we do on our phones?

This is not my research area as I don’t look at privacy issues in relation to Internet and smartphone use. However, I’ve got access to people’s data from gambling companies and we do research on that data. I think that people have got to realise that anything they do online, when you’ve signed up to do anything, whether it’s a gambling service, a gaming service, a social networking site, is that you are – in effect – giving your data away.

When my kids come to me and say to me, ‘Can I do this, it’s free?’ I have to educate my children when anything is free, via smartphone or the Internet, then you yourself are the product that’s actually being sold. It’s very hard to educate a 12 or 13-year-old about that, but I think you can say to adults that their data is being used and sold in ways that they never imagined.

But I do think that this ‘big data’ revolution that we’ve got now can result in very good potential uses of that data, particularly at an aggregate level. But I certainly know that on an individual level, I don’t like my own data being used. If I sign up and buy things from Amazon, I know they’re going to use my data. If I sign up to use Facebook, I know my data is being used some way. So it’s a bit of give and take. In Europe, we’ve just had new regulation regarding data privacy. Obviously governments are trying to get on top of this, but we now live in a digital world, we leave digital footprints, and our data is going to be used in ways we never thought it might be used in the first place. That is the trade-off between having all these advantages of new technologies versus those privacy issues.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). ‘Addictive’ smartphone games and their features: A largescale qualitative study using online reviews by videogame players. International Journal of Mental Health and Addictions, in press.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioral addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 154-162.

Csibi, S., Griffiths, M.D., Cook, B., Demetrovics, Z., & Szabo, A. (2018). The psychometric properties of the Smartphone: Applications-Based Addiction Scale (SABAS). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16, 393-403.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Hussain, Z., Griffiths, M.D. & Sheffield, D. (2017). An investigation in to problematic smartphone use: The role of narcissism, anxiety, and personality factors. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 378–386.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (2015). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3) (pp. 591-606). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Pontes, H.M., Griffiths, M.D., Dawes, C., … Billieux, J. (2018). Measurement invariance of the short version of the Problematic Mobile Phone Use Questionnaire (PMPUQ-SV) across eight languages. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15, 1213. doi:10.3390/ijerph15061213

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Männikkö, N., Kääriäinen, M., Griffiths, M.D., & Kuss, D.J. (2018). Mobile gaming does not predict smartphone dependence: A cross-cultural study between Belgium and Finland. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 88-99.

Richardson, M., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Problematic smartphone use, nature connectedness, and anxiety. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 109-116.

Term warfare: Another look at ‘behavioural addiction’ and ‘selfitis’ as constructs

I recently published a response to a debate article by Dr. Vladan Starcevic and his colleagues in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Unfortunately, my response was restricted to a stringent word limit so I am using my personal blog to provide the original version of my response before it was edited. My published version can be found here. Below is the original version:

The article by Starcevic, Billieux and Schimmenti (2018) made a number of assertions concerning my research with various co-authors. While I am always grateful that my work is being read and cited, some of the assertions made were arguably unfair, misguided and/or not stated in context (and could therefore be construed as untrue). In this short article, I first address some of the claims made about our research into the construct of ‘selfitis’. I then address a few of the wider issues made by Starcevic et al. in relation to behavioural addictions more generally because they used some of my other research into various behavioural addictions to make their arguments.

The construct of ‘selfitis’

Starcevic et al. noted that there has been a trend “to medicalize problematic behaviours” (p.1) and used the example of ‘selfitis’ to make their point. The way the article was written it would appear to the naïve reader that I and my co-author (Janarthan Balakrishnan) had coined the term ‘selfitis’. For instance, the article by Starcevic et al. cites our paper in specific reference to the following assertion:

“Instead of labelling an excessive and sometimes dangerous practice of taking selfies a ‘selfie addiction’, this behaviour was conceptualised as an inflammation-like selfitis (Balakrishnan and Griffiths, in press)”.

This sentence clearly gives the impression that it was Dr. Balakrishnan and I who conceptualised ‘selfitis’ and that our conceptualisation was that it was “inflammation-like”. However, we made it very clear to readers in the very first paragraph of our paper that the concept of ‘selfitis’ originally started a hoax claiming that the ‘disorder’ was to be included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The original hoax report defined selfitis as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy” which we again made clear in the second sentence of our paper. The two studies in our paper were exploratory and merely set out to examine whether there were individuals who were ‘obsessive selfie-takers’. In many parts of their article, Starcevic et al. appear to insinuate that our paper equates ‘selfitis’ with ‘selfie addiction’. For instance, they wrote:

“Interestingly, the components of selfitis that were identified (environmental enhancement, social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence and subjective conformity) have practically nothing in common with behavioural addiction…Therefore, selfitis appears to be a construct that is very different from ‘selfie addiction’, and its purported link with compulsivity also seems tenuous” (p.1).

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 18.12.52The six components comprising selfitis in our new psychometric tool (the Selfitis Behavior Scale [SBS]) were correctly reported but at no point in our paper did we ever say that ‘selfitis’ was a behavioural addiction. What we did write was that (a) “selfitis is a new construct in which future researchers may investigate further in relation to selfitis addiction and/or compulsion” (p.8), and (ii) “the qualitative focus group data from participants strongly implied the presence of ‘selfie addiction’ although the SBS does not specifically assess selfie addiction” (p.11). They also noted that our published paper on selfitis:

“…did not go unnoticed by the media, always ready to exploit everything that is ‘novel’ and sensational. Thus, one newspaper reported that selfitis, ‘the obsessive need to post selfies’, was a ‘genuine mental disorder’ and quoted one of the authors of the aforementioned article that the existence of selfitis appeared to be confirmed (www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/12/15/selfitis-obsessiveneed-post-selfies-genuine-mental-disorder/)…The word has thus become enriched by one more ‘condition’, complete with an assessment tool to establish its severity and a suggestion that people with selfitis may need professional help” (p.2).

While it is true that our study did not go unnoticed by the media (and was reported in hundreds of news stories around the world), only one newspaper journalist ever interviewed me about the study and at no point either in our published paper or in any conversations with the broadcast media did we ever say that ‘selfitis’ was a mental disorder. Our paper simply concluded that obsessive selfie-taking was a condition that appears to exist and made the observation that selfitis has “psychological consequences (which may be both positive and negative)” (p.12). In fact, we talked about the positive aspects of selfitis throughout the discussion section of our paper. In short, I would like it to be made clear that (i) we did not coin the term ‘selfitis’, (ii) we have never anywhere in published print (academic papers or the print media) claimed selfitis is a mental disorder, (iii) we have never claimed selfitis is a behavioural addiction, and (iv) we have never equated ‘selfitis’ with ‘selfie addiction’ (although we have just published another paper briefly reviewing the studies that have examined the concept of ‘selfie addiction’ [i.e., Griffiths & Balakrishnan, 2018]).

The construct of ‘behavioural addiction’

Starcevic et al. also claimed in their article that the term ‘behavioural addiction’ is “vague, misused and applied to an exceptionally wide variety of activities” (p.1). I would argue that the far from being ‘vague’, behavioural addiction has clearly been defined as any addiction that does not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (Griffiths, 1996, 2005). I agree that it is sometimes misused and I have written dozens of populist articles on my personal blog pointing this out. However, I totally disagree that behavioural addiction has been applied to an ‘exceptionally wide variety of activities’. As I noted in a recent paper: Very few of the thousands of leisure activities that individuals engage in have ever been written about in terms of addiction in peer-reviewed scientific papers” (Griffiths, 2017; p.1719). Starcevic et al. would be hard pushed to name more than about 20 leisure activities that have ever been empirically examined as a possible behavioural addiction. Of the five activities named by Starcevic in an attempt to show the behavioural addiction is being misused three of them were actually just sub-types of more widely researched behavioural addictions (i.e., stock market addiction is a sub-type of gambling addiction, study addiction is a sub-type of work addiction, and dance addiction is a sub-type of exercise addiction) as made clear in my papers on these topics.

Starcevic et al. also noted that a group of scholars (Kardefelt-Winther et al., 2017) “recently made an effort to reach a consensus, promote conceptual rigour and avoid misuse by proposing an open (modifiable) definition of behavioural addiction” (p.1). More specifically, Kardefelt‐Winther et al. provided four exclusion criteria and argued that behaviours should not be classed as a behavioural addiction if:

  1. “The behaviour is better explained by an underlying disorder (e.g. a depressive disorder or impulse-control disorder).
  2. The functional impairment results from an activity that, although potentially harmful, is the consequence of a willful choice (e.g. high-level sports).
  3. The behaviour can be characterized as a period of prolonged intensive involvement that detracts time and focus from other aspects of life, but does not lead to significant functional impairment or distress for the individual.
  4. The behaviour is the result of a coping strategy” (p.1710)

I doubt anyone researching in the behavioural addiction would disagree with the third exclusion criterion because to have a genuine behavioural addiction, the behaviour has to comprise significant functional impairment or distress for the individual. However, I would point out that if these criteria were applied to substance abuse, very few substance users would ever be classed as addicted (Griffiths, 2017). More specifically, I have written elsewhere that three of the four exclusion criteria proposed by Kardefelt‐Winther et al. (2017) are simply untenable:

“For instance, it is proposed that any behaviour in which functional impairment results from an activity that is a consequence of wilful choice should not be considered an addiction. I cannot think of a single addictive behaviour that when the person first started engaging in the behaviour (e.g., drinking alcohol, illicit drug-taking, gambling) was not engaged in wilfully…Also, not being classed as an addiction if the behaviour is secondary to another comorbid behaviour (e.g., a depressive disorder) or is used as a coping strategy again means that some other substance addictions (e.g., alcoholism) would not be classed as genuine addictive behaviours using such exclusion criteria because many substance-based addictions are used as coping strategies and/or are symptomatic of other underlying pathologies” (Griffiths, 2017; pp.1718-1719).

Throughout my 30 years of research into behavioural addiction, I have never simply looked at a behaviour and claimed that it cannot be potentially addictive. Using my own operational criteria for what I believe constitutes a genuine addiction (i.e., salience, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, mood modification, and relapse; Griffiths, 1966, 2005) very few individuals would be classed as being addicted to activities such as sex, work, exercise, or gaming. However, if there is evidence of what I consider to be the core components of addiction in activities that others believe should not be pathologised (e.g., dancing or academic study), I would not choose to ignore such evidence if such activities caused significant functional impairment and distress for the individuals concerned.

References

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Epub ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x

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.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction 112: 1718-1720.

Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health 36(1): 3-5.

Kardefelt-Winther D, Heeren A, Schimmenti A, et al. (2017) How can we conceptualize behavioural addiction without pathologizing common behaviours? Addiction 112: 1709–1715.

Starcevic, V., Billieux, J., & Schimmenti, A. (2018). Selfitis, selfie addiction, Twitteritis: Irresistible appeal of medical terminology for problematic behaviours in the digital age. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Epub ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004867418763532

Me, myself-itis: A brief overview of obsessive selfie-taking

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a selfie is a “photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”. From a psychological perspective, the taking of selfies is a self-oriented action that allows users to establish their individuality and self-importance; it is also associated with personality traits such as narcissism.

However, selfie-taking is more than just the taking of a photograph. It can include the editing of the color and contrast, the changing of backgrounds, and the addition of other effects before uploading. These added options and the use of integrative editing have further popularized selfie-taking behavior, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults.

On March 31, 2014, a story appeared on a website called the Adobo Chronicles that claimed that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) had classed “selfitis” as a new mental disorder. According to the author, the organization had defined selfitis as “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy”. The same article also claimed there three levels of the disorder: borderline (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day but not posting them on social media”), acute (“taking photos of one’s self at least three times a day and posting each of the photos on social media”), and chronic (“uncontrollable urge to take photos of one’s self round the clock and posting the photos on social media more than six times a day”).

Screen Shot 2018-06-13 at 18.12.52

The story was republished on numerous news sites around the world, but it soon became clear the story was a hoax. However, one of the reasons that so many news outlets republished the story – other than that it seemingly fit certain preexisting stereotypes in people’s minds – was that the criteria used to delineate the three levels of selfitis (i.e., borderline, acute, and chronic) seemed believable.

Therefore, we thought it would be interesting to examine whether there was any substance to the claims that taking selfies can be a time-consuming and potentially obsessive behavior – the stereotype underlying many people’s credulity about the fake story. We empirically explored the concept of selfitis across two studies and collected data on the existence of selfitis with respect to the three alleged levels (borderline, acute, and chronic), ultimately developed our own psychometric scale to assess the sub-components of selfitis (the Selfitis Behaviour Scale).

We used Indian students as participants in our research because India has the largest total number of users on Facebook by country. We also knew India accounts for more selfie-related deaths in the world compared to any other country. with a reported 76 deaths reported out of a total of 127 worldwide since 2014. (Those deaths usually occur when people attempt to take selfies in dangerous contexts, such as in water, from heights, in the proximity of moving vehicles, like trains, or while posing with weapons).

Our study began by using focus group interviews with 225 young adults with an average age of 21 years old to gather an initial set of criteria that underlie selfitis. Example questions used during the focus group interviews included ‘What compels you to take selfies?’, ‘Do you feel addicted to taking selfies?’ and ‘Do you think that someone can become addicted to taking selfies?’ It was during these interviews that participants confirmed there appeared to be individuals who obsessively take selfies — or, in other words, that selfitis does at least exist. But, since we did not collect any data on the negative psychosocial impacts, we cannot yet claim that the behavior is a mental disorder; negative consequences of the behavior is a key part of that determination.

The six components of selfitis, tested on the further participants, were: environmental enhancement (e.g., taking selfies in specific locations to feel good and show off to others); social competition (e.g., taking selfies to get more ‘likes’ on social media); attention-seeking (e.g., taking selfies to gain attention from others); mood modification (e.g., taking selfies to feel better); self-confidence (e.g., taking selfies to feel more positive about oneself); and subjective conformity (e.g., taking selfies to fit in with one’s social group and peers).

Our findings showed that those with chronic selfitis were more likely to be motivated to take selfies due to attention-seeking, environmental enhancement and social competition. The results suggest that people with chronic levels of selfitis are seeking to fit in with those around them, and may display symptoms similar to other potentially addictive behaviours. Other studies have also suggested that a minority of individuals might have a ‘selfie addiction’ (see ‘References and further reading’ below).

With the existence of the condition apparently confirmed, we hope that further research will be carried out to understand more about how and why people develop this potentially obsessive behaviour, and what can be done to help people who are the most affected. However, the findings of our research do not indicate that selfitis is a mental disorder based on the findings of this study – a claim made in many of the news reports about our study, possibly demonstrating how deep the stereotypes about selfie-takes run – only that selfitis appears to be a condition that requires further research to fully assess the psychosocial impacts that the behaviour might have on the individual.

If you are interested in assessing your own behavior, click here to download where you can complete the self-assessment test in the Appendix of our paper.

Please note: This article was co-written with Dr. Janarthanan Balakrishnan (Thiagarajar School of Management, India)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). An exploratory study of ‘selfitis’ and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-017-9844-x.

Gaddala, A., Hari Kumar, K. J., & Pusphalatha, C. (2017). A study on various effects of internet and selfie dependence among undergraduate medical students. Journal of Contemporary Medicine and Dentistry, 5(2), 29-32.

Griffiths, M.D. & Balakrishnan, J. (2018). The psychosocial impact of excessive selfie-taking in youth: A brief overview. Education and Health, 36(1), 3-5.

Kaur, S., & Vig, D. (2016). Selfie and mental health issues: An overview. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 7(12), 1149

Khan, N., Saraswat, R., & Amin, B. (2017). Selfie: Enjoyment or addiction? Journal of Medical Science and Clinical Research, 5, 15836-15840.

Lee, R. L. (2016). Diagnosing the selfie: Pathology or parody? Networking the spectacle in late capitalism. Third Text, 30(3-4), 264-27

Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). Selfies introduction – What does the selfie say? Investigating a global phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 19

Singh, D., & Lippmann, S. (2017). Selfie addiction. Internet and Psychiatry, April 2. Located at: https://www.internetandpsychiatry.com/wp/editorials/selfie-addiction/

Singh, S. & Tripathi, K.M. (2017). Selfie: A new obsession. SSRN, Located at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2920945

Remote control: ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting

“Cash Out lets you take profit early if your bet is coming in, or get some of your stake back if your bet is going against you – all before the event you’re betting on is over. Cash Out offers are made in real time on your current bets, based on live market prices. Whenever you are ready to Cash Out, simply hit the yellow button. Cash out is available on singles and multiples, on a wide range of sports, including football, tennis, horse racing, and many more! You can Cash Out of bets pre-play, in-play, and between legs” (Definition of ‘cash out’ betting on Betfair website, 2017).

Most European sports betting operators now feature ‘cash out’ functionalities in their online platforms. This means that bettors can withdraw their bets before the event bet upon has concluded, obtaining a smaller but guaranteed return if the outcome of the bet is going their way, or, conversely, cutting down the monetary impact of a foreseeable loss. The ‘cash out’ functionality has rapidly become popular among sports bettors that bet in-play (i.e., during the game on things such as soccer matches and horse races) as a way of maximising value on the bets they have made.

Industry voices such as David O’Reilly, from Colossus Bets, have identified four major benefits of cash out features for bookmakers: (i) reducing the volatility of the operator’s revenue; (ii) increasing the recycling of player returns, with more players banking smaller amounts; (iii) enabling players to avoid their ‘near miss’ frustration; and (iv) improving the player engagement with the platform by introducing a mechanism that promotes constant checking. However, for sports bettors, cashing out strategies might typically involve cutting down the profit while being ahead but rarely reducing the loss when going behind. In this regard, cashing out does not appear to differ greatly from other new internet-based betting forms (e.g. so-called ‘exotic’ or multiple bets), which have been found to possess, in general, higher expected losses for gamblers and greater profit margins for operators.

images

However, beyond the feature’s financial rationale, cash out affects the nature of sports betting in more meaningful ways. It is, arguably, a game-changer, that leads (along with other features such as ‘edit my acca’ features in which specific bets can be removed from ‘accumulator’ bets) to the transformation of sports betting from a discontinuous to a continuous form of gambling. Here, our contention is that cash out is a key component of the contemporary bettor-bookmaker interaction, and that the widespread adoption by devoted sports bettors merits a closer look into the implications of such an interaction from a problem gambling perspective. Such an examination also suggests that regulators and policymakers need to think about how to protect gambling consumers from the potential harm caused by this new type of betting.

Structural characteristics have been proposed as a determining factor that can influence problem gambling behaviour. Structural characteristics are those associated with the design of a gambling product that shape the way gamblers interact with it. Typical structural characteristics include, but are not limited to, bet frequency, bet duration, event frequency, near misses, stake size, jackpot size, probability of winning, and interface design (e.g., the use of music and colour stimuli in the design of slot machines).

The internet has altered significantly the structural characteristics of gambling and sports betting more specifically. For example, in a number of European countries, the football (soccer) pools used to comprise bets placed during a weekday on the outcome of a game played typically on a Saturday or Sunday (i.e., a once a week wager). This reward delay was a major protective factor against excessive gambling, which on a psychobiological level has been theorised as an imbalance in an individual’s dopamine receptors, and therefore, highly sensitive to shorter bet reward periods. Betting via the internet has reduced such delays in receiving rewards from gambling, thus modifying a major structural characteristic of betting from once a week to (in some instances) every few minutes.

In parallel to the increased uptake of Internet betting in many jurisdictions, a second dynamic, namely globalisation, has further widened the possibilities of betting across countries, sports, and time zones, ultimately transforming sports betting into a 24/7 activity where the bookmaker never closes the shop any day during the year. For the first time, if a gambler has a craving to bet, the market is able to respond to that demand anytime and anywhere via a range of Wi-Fi enabled portable devices (e.g., smartphone, tablets, laptops, etc.). Virtual sports have expanded the availability of betting options even more, eliminating the need to bet on real world sport events.

Although the time between bets (i.e., bet frequency) was effectively reduced to near zero, the time within bets (i.e., bet duration) changed little until cash out functionality was first introduced by the gaming operator William Hill in December 2012. With cash out features, sports betting has become a potentially continuous gambling activity, one that resembles the playing mechanics the stock market. As with investing in stocks, bet values in in-play sports betting are re-calculated seamlessly. The outcome of a sport event might not be as relevant for many bettors as the value their bet will acquire in the next few seconds, even if that bet turns out to be erroneous at the end of the game. As in stock market investing, betting becomes continuous because non-actions also qualify as actions in themselves. Every single second that a bettor decides not to cash out, a new bet takes place. Eventually, cash out features introduce the notion that it is the bet itself the commodity that is being traded in the sports betting market. This new continuous type of sports betting raises questions concerning the gambling-related harm that could be associated with it. It also suggests that the kinds of regulation found widely in the stock market investment sector might have some utility if applied to this new form of gambling.

From a marketing perspective, cash out functionality is often advertised as a control-enhancing mechanism for bettors. Given that cashing out is typically presented in television advertisements as a risk-free operation, the product is likely to be perceived as reimbursable if the client is not happy with it, arguably promoting less planned gambling behaviours. Some gaming operators use the alternative name of “edit my bet” to refer to cash out, focusing on the capacity of bettors to correct later possible errors of judgement. The problem is that (and as happens in stock market investing), cashing out is only possible at the current value of the stock (which may be inferior to the purchasing price). Additionally, and contrary to what happens in stock market investing, betting operators automatically devalue the bet price immediately after the purchase. For example, a bookmaker will typically offer to cash out for $0.95 or similar a $1 bet placed one second ago, a price devaluation unmotivated by any new information or event actually affecting the predicted value of such a bet.

Beyond its most apparent attributes, we have demonstrated that cash out within in-play gambling is a pivotal feature that has been introduced by the sports betting industry to transform sports betting from what was traditionally a discontinuous form of gambling into a continuous one. It is contended that, although cashing out presupposes more engaged gamblers that feel more in control of their bets, the emotionally charged context in which it is often used and the structural attributes of the product itself might actually make some bettors lose control over their gambling wagers. Consequently, gambling policymakers and regulators should be cognizant of the challenges of this transformation of sports betting and consider the implications for the protection of gambling consumers.

[Note: This article was co-written with Dr. Hibai Lopez-Gonzalez]

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Betfair (2017). Sportsbook: What is cash out and how does it work? Retrieved March 1, 2017, from: https://en-betfair.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/4/~/sportsbook%3A-what-is-cash-out-and-how-does-it-work%3F

Gainsbury, S. M. (2015). Online gambling addiction: The relationship between internet gambling and disordered gambling. Current Addiction Reports, 2(2), 185-193.

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M. D. (2005). A biopsychosocial approach to addiction. Psyke & Logos, 26(1), 9–26.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013). The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.

Lopez-Gonzalez, H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Understanding the convergence of online sports betting markets. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. http://doi.org/doi:10.1177/1012690216680602

Lopez-Gonzalez, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). ‘Cashing out’ in sports betting: Implications for problem gambling and regulation. Gaming Law Review: Economics, Regulation, Compliance and Policy, 21(4), 323-326.

McCormack, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(1), 29–49.

Newall, P. W. S. (2015). How bookies make your money. Judgment and Decision Making, 10(3), 225–231.

Newall, P. W. S. (2017). Behavioral complexity of British gambling advertising. Addiction Research & Theory. http://doi.org/10.1080/16066359.2017.1287901

Parke, J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins, & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp. 211–243). New York: Elsevier.

Sports Trading Life. (2015). Is “cash out” actually BAD for betting punters? Retrieved March 1, 2017, from http://sportstradinglife.com/2015/03/is-cash-out-actually-bad-for-punters/

Gripped by ‘crypt’: A brief look at ‘crypto-trading addiction’

Last week I was approached by Rupert Wolfe-Murray, a PR representative of a well-known addiction treatment clinic (Castle Craig) asking what my views were on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading (colloquially known as ‘crypto trading’) and whether the activity could be addictive. More specifically he wrote:

“I write to you about the research we’re doing into addiction to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. We’ve had an enquiry about this at Castle Craig and they would treat it as a gambling addiction. We think it’s a new type of behavioural addiction and we plan to publish a web page (and FAQ) with the intention of alerting people that the online trading of cryptocurrencies may be addictive. It would be very helpful if we could get a quote from you, putting it into perspective. Do you think it’s a growing problem? There’s very little information about this issue online but there is an active forum of ‘crypto addicts’ on Reddit, where I got some friendly feedback…The therapist I often turn to when writing about gambling and the behavioural addictions told me that it sounds like addiction to day trading. Would you agree?”

In short, I couldn’t agree more although my own view is that this is not a ‘new’ addiction but a sub-type of online day-trading addiction (on which I first published an article about back in 2000 for GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded with Paul Bellringer in 1997) and/or stock market trading addiction (which I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about, here and here, and an article in iGaming Business Affiliate magazine). However, I decided to do a bit of research into the issue.

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A recent January 2018 article in the Jakarta Post by Ario Tamat examined this issue which was a personal account of his own experiences (‘Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank’). He wrote:

“I was always interested in Bitcoin, not that I really understand the technology, but first impressions were appealing: a decentralized currency, mined by solving mathematical equations and potentially accessible to anyone…Fast forward to 2017. Discussions on cryptocurrencies had entered the public consciousness, Bitcoin prices were sky high… A few friends introduced me to a local site on cryptocurrency trading – the most suitable term for the entire affair, actually – bitcoin.co.id. Taking the leap, I took some money out of my measly savings and bought myself some Bitcoin…In three days, I had made 6 percent. I was hooked… I’ve noticed that the whole cryptocurrency trading trend is like placing bets on a never-ending horse race, where new horses are introduced to the race almost daily”.

Another article by Douglas Lampi on the Steemit website noted that “the elements of addiction and gambling are a consistent risk that traders must always be on the guard against” and provided some signs to readers that they may be trading impulsively. These included (i) feeling muscle tension, (ii) feeling background anxiety, (iii) checking the price of Bitcoin and alt coins several times through the day, and (iv) thinking about trading while engaged in other activities. While these ‘symptoms’ and behaviours might be found among those addicted to crypto day trading, on their own they are arguably little more than mildly problematic. These signs applied to gambling or social media use would be unlikely to raise many worries among addiction treatment practitioners.

I also visited the online Bitcoin Forum where one of the topics was ‘Is crypto trading an addiction’ prompted by a Russian who allegedly committed suicide after losing all his money crypto trading. Most of the people on the forum didn’t think it was an addiction and claimed the suicide was reminiscent of the suicides that occurred at the time of the 2009 stock market crash (although a couple of individuals believed that crypto trading was a potentially ‘addicting’ activity). One participant in the discussion noted:

“Yes [crypto trading is] highly addictive, specially formulated if you start to notice that need, urge in side you, to check the price even in the middle of the night. Find yourself skipping your daily routines it is and can be addictive if you don’t know how to control you and your emotions. I have found somewhere that some say that it is like being in casino, betting, playing rules etc. because like every coin was made mostly for pure profit and it’s all speculation rather than to have their own sole purpose which when I think of it can make sense to even why it can be addictive”.

Another individual on the Bitcoin Pub website wrote:

“I think I might actually have an unhealthy addiction to [crypto trading]. I’d say 3/4 times when I unlock my phone I’m checking Blockfolio, when I’m at work, at home, with my girlfriend, or even between sets at the gym. I’m starting to think I need to discipline myself to NOT check it or limit it to maybe 1-2 times a day as its noticeably impacting my passions and in turn my mental state. I’m not a day trader, I hold all my coins in cold storage. So there’s really no reason for me to be checking that frequently, or watching crypto analysis YouTube videos, or reading articles about it several times a day”.

The issue was also discussed in a recent February 2018 article in the Irish Times by Fiona Reddan (‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto’). Interviewing Nicholas Charalambous (Managing Director of Alpha Wealth) was quoted as saying: “Previously, I would have described cryptos as ‘shares on steroids’; now I would say they’re shares with jetpacks and boosters and then some”. While Bitcoin shares have fallen, there are plenty of new cryptocurrencies that individuals can dabble buying shares in (ethereum, litecoin, ripple, putincoin and dogecoin) and all can be akin to gambling. Reddan also interviewed Jonathan Sheehan (Managing Director, Compass Private Wealth) who said:

“It has the exact same risk and return characteristics as a naive gambler, who has opened their first online betting account. There is absolutely no valuation metric for these currencies and allocating capital to them is an extreme and unnecessary risk”.

One country that has taken crypto trading addiction seriously is South Korea. Their government’s Office for Government Policy Coordination has introduced new rules to inhibit the speculation on cryptocurrencies. According to a Market Watch article:

“The proposed measures…range from levying capital-gain taxes on trading cryptocurrencies, to restricting financial firms from holding, acquiring and investing in them…The new regulations come amid mounting concern within South Korea about the potential for people to become addicted to bitcoin trading”.

The country’s prime minister Lee Nak-yon went as far as to say that the increasing interest in cryptocurrencies could “lead to some serious distorted or pathological phenomenon”.

I did quickly check what had been written about academically. I came across a couple of papers on Google Scholar that mentioned possible addiction to crypto trading. Justine Brecese (in a 2013 ‘research note’ on the socioeconomic implications of cyber‐currencies for ASA Risk Consultants) asserted that risks with virtual currency include the potential for addiction and resultant over-spending” (but providing little in the way of empirical evidence for the claim). In a paper by Haraši Namztohoto on ‘cryptocoin avarice’, he noted:

“Reason often discretely quits the cognitive battlefield whenever hoarding tendencies of human beings are coupled with addictive behaviour which financial derivate trading surely is, thus leaving humans prone to caprices of mass psychology”.

Given that addictions rely on constant rewards and reinforcement, there is no theoretical reason why crypto trading cannot be addictive. However, there is only anecdotal evidence of addicted individuals and if they are addicted a case could be made that this is a type of gambling addiction.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brecese, J. (2013). Research note – Money from nothing: The socioeconomic implications of “cyber-currencies”. Seattle, WA: ASA Institute for Risk & Innovation

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.

Namztohoto, H. (2013). Myth, machinery and cryptocoin avarice. Wizzion.com. Located at: http://wizzion.com/papers/2013/cryptocoin-avarice.pdf

Jeong, E-Y. & Russolillo, S. (2017). South Korea mulls taxing cryptocurrency trade as fears mount about bitcoin addiction, speculation. Market Watch, December 13. Located at: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/south-korea-mulls-taxing-cryptocurrency-trade-as-fears-mount-about-bitcoin-addiction-speculation-2017-12-13

Lampi, D. (2018). Two sure signs YOU are a crypto trading addict. Steemit.com. February. Located: https://steemit.com/cryptocurrency/@ipmal/two-sure-signs-you-are-a-crypto-trading-addict

Reddan, F. (2018). ‘It’s addictive’: Why investors are still flocking to bitcoin and crypto. Irish Times, February 13. Located at: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/financial-services/it-s-addictive-why-investors-are-still-flocking-to-bitcoin-and-crypto-1.3388392

Tamat, A. (2018). Bitcoin trading: Addictive ‘hobby’ that could break my bank. The Jakarta Post, January 8. Located at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2018/01/08/bitcoin-trading-addictive-hobby-that-could-break-my-bank.html

Every little ring: Another look at excessive smartphone use

Last week I did seven back-to-back BBC radio interviews concerning my thoughts on a new study on smartphone use carried out by Opinium Research for Virgin Mobile and reported in a number of papers including the Daily Mail. The company surveyed 2,004 British adults (aged 18 years and over) who own a smartphone as well 200 British teenagers and tweenagers aged between 10 and 17 years. The main findings were that:

  • British adults receive an average of 33,800 mobile phone messages and alerts annually
  • British adults spend the equivalent of 22 days a year checking messages on their smartphones (an average of 26 minutes a day)
  • An average smartphone user gets 93 buzzes a day
  • Those aged between 18 and 24 years have almost three times more messages receiving 239 messages and alerts a day on average (approximately 87,300 a year).
  • On average, Britons are members of six chat groups, although a small minority (2%) are members of 50 groups or more, rising to 7% among those aged 18 to 24 years.
  • One in four adults say they check a WhatsApp message instantly, with this increasing to almost one in three among 18 to 24-year-olds.
  • Smartphone users receive 427% more messages and notifications than they did a decade ago
  • Smartphone users sent 278% more messages than they did a decade ago

The survey found a contributing factor behind the surge in the number of messages received was the rise of group chats on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. In the press release, Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos (consumer and business psychologist at University College London) said:

“The boom in smartphone use was a positive trend and allowed consumers greater control over their lives. In an age where we are constantly surrounded by endless tasks, always flooded with a sea of data, smartphones allow us to manage our lives in a way that suits us. From calendars and reminders, to emails and instantaneous access to an encyclopaedia of human knowledge, smartphones give us total control, right at our fingertips.”

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There was nothing in the study that I found particularly surprising but I was hoping to see what survey had found from those under 18 years of age (but nothing was reported in the national newspapers and I’ve been unable to track down anything beyond the press release).

In my radio interviews, most of the presenters wanted to know the extent to which individuals are now ‘addicted’ to their mobile phones. I then trotted out my usual response that ‘people are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to a bottle’ and said if there was anything addicting then it was the application (e.g., gaming, gambling, shopping, social networking, etc.) rather than the smartphone itself. I also went through the addiction components model and hypothesized what the behaviour of a smartphone addict would look like if they were genuinely addicted to their smartphone applications:

  • Salience – This occurs when using a smartphone becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their smartphone they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with smartphone use).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of using their smartphone and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ whenever they use their smartphone).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time on a smartphone are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged on a smartphone, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend using a smartphone every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person is unable to access their smartphone because they have mislaid or lost it, are too ill to use it, in a place with no reception, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time on a smartphone.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive smartphone use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive smartphone use to be quickly restored after periods of control.

Using these criteria, I then went on to say that very few people would be classed as addicted to their smartphones. However, I did point out that such behaviour is on a continuum and that there may be a growing number of people that experience problematic smartphone use rather than being addicted. The examples I used included those individuals who would rather spend time on their smartphone than spending it with their partner and/or children, or individuals who spend so much time on their smartphone that it impacts on their job or their education (depending upon how old they are). Neither of these on their own (or together) necessarily indicate addictive use of smartphones but could be a sign that such individuals are at risk for developing an addiction to the applications on their smartphone. However, I would still argue that someone that spends all their time on social networking sites and social media (via their mobile phone) are a social media addict rather than a smartphone addict although others might see this as a semantic difference rather than a difference of substance. Whatever we call the behaviour, there does seem to be growing evidence that smartphones play a major role in people’s lives and that a small minority appear to have problematic use (as outlined in a number of studies that I have co-authored – see ‘Further reading’ below).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioral addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 154-162.

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

Csibi, S., Griffiths, M.D., Cook, B., Demetrovics, Z., & Szabo, A. (2018). The psychometric properties of the Smartphone: Applications-Based Addiction Scale (SABAS). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. doi: 10.1007/s11469-017-9787-2

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Hussain, Z., Griffiths, M.D. & Sheffield, D. (2017). An investigation in to problematic smartphone use: The role of narcissism, anxiety, and personality factors. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 378–386.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (2015). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3) (pp. 591-606). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Romo, L. Morvan, Y., Kern, L., … Griffiths, M.D., … Billieux, J. (2017). Self-reported dependence on mobile phones in young adults: A European cross-cultural empirical survey. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 168-177.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Männikkö, N., Kääriäinen, M., Griffiths, M.D., & Kuss, D.J. (2018). Mobile gaming does not predict smartphone dependence: A cross-cultural study between Belgium and Finland. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. doi: 10.1556/2006.6.2017.080

Richardson, M., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Problematic smartphone use, nature connectedness, and anxiety. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.10

 

Eyes on the prize: Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling?

The buying of loot boxes takes place within online videogames and are (in essence) virtual games of chance. Players use real money to buy virtual in-game items and can redeem such items by buying keys to open the boxes where they receive a chance selection of further virtual items. Other types of equivalent in-game virtual assets that can be bought include crates, cases, chests, bundles, and card packs. The virtual items that can be ‘won’ can comprise basic customization (i.e., cosmetic) options for a player’s in-game character (avatar) to in-game assets that can help players progress more effectively in the game (e.g., gameplay improvement items such as weapons, armor). All players hope that they can win ‘rare’ items and are often encouraged to spend more money to do so because the chances of winning such items are minimal. Many popular videogames now feature loot boxes (or equivalents) including Overwatch, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Star Wars Battlefront 2, FIFA Ultimate Team, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fortress 2, Injustice 2, Lawbreakers, Forza Motorsport 7, and For Honor. In short, all of these require the paying of real money in exchange for a completely random in-game item. In an interview with Eurogamer, psychologist Jamie Madigan said:

“Whenever you open [a loot box], you may get something awesome (or you may get trash). This randomness taps into some of the very fundamental ways our brains work when trying to predict whether or not a good thing will happen. We are particularly excited by unexpected pleasures like a patch of wild berries or an epic skin for our character. This is because our brains are trying to pay attention to and trying to figure out such awesome rewards. But unlike in the real world, these rewards can be completely random (or close enough not to matter) and we can’t predict randomness. But the reward system in your brain doesn’t know that. Buying [loot boxes] puts them into the same category of packs of Pokémon cards or baseball cards. Unlike gambling in a casino, you’re going to get something out of that pack. Maybe just not the thing you wanted”.

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Although there are many definitions in many disciplines defining gambling, there are a number of common elements that occur in the majority of gambling instances that distinguish ‘true’ gambling from mere risk-taking. These include: (i) the exchange is determined by a future event, which at the time of staking money (or something of financial value) the outcome is unknown, (ii) the result is determined (at least partly or wholly) by chance, (iii) the re-allocation of wealth (i.e., the exchange of money [or something of financial value] usually without the introduction of productive work on either side, and (iv) losses incurred can be avoided by simply not taking part in the activity in the first place. Added to this it could be argued that the money or prize to be won should be of greater financial value than the money staked in the first place. Based on these elements, the buying of loot boxes (or equivalents) would be classed as a form of gambling, as would other activities such as the Treasure Hunter and Squeal of Fortune games within the Runescape videogame and online penny auctions (which I have argued in previous papers – see ‘Further reading’).

In the UK Gambling Commission’s most recent (March 2017) position paper on virtual currencies and social casino gambling noted:

“One commonly used method for players to acquire in-game items is through the purchase of keys from the games publisher to unlock ‘crates’, ‘cases’ or ‘bundles’ which contain an unknown quantity and value of in-game items as a prize. The payment of a stake (key) for the opportunity to win a prize (in-game items) determined (or presented as determined) at random bears a close resemblance, for instance, to the playing of a gaming machine. Where there are readily accessible opportunities to cash in or exchange those awarded in-game items for money or money’s worth those elements of the game are likely to be considered licensable gambling activities [Section 3.17]…Additional consumer protection in the form of gambling regulation, is required in circumstances where players are being incentivised to participate in gambling style activities through the provision of prizes of money or money’s worth. Where prizes are successfully restricted for use solely within the game, such in-game features would not be licensable gambling, notwithstanding the elements of expenditure and chance [Section 3.18]”.

Consequently, the UK Gambling Commission does not consider loot boxes as a form of gambling because (they claim) the in-game items have no real-life value outside of the game. However, this is not the case because there are many websites that allow players to trade in-game items and/or virtual currency for real money. The Gambling Commission appear to acknowledge this point and claim that the buying of in-game loot boxes (and their equivalents) are not gambling but if third party sites become involved (by allowing the buying and selling of in-game items), the activity does become a form of gambling. As Vic Hood (in a 2017 article in Eurogamer) rightly notes, this appears to be a case of the law struggling to keep pace with technology. There are also issues surrounding age limits and whether games that offer loot boxes (or equivalents) should be restricted to those over the age of 18 years.

Predictably, those in the videogame industry do not view the buying of loot boxes as gambling either. For instance, Dirk Bosmans (from PEGI [Pan European Game Information], the European-based videogame rating organization) stated in a recent interview with Eurogamer that:

“Loot crates are currently not considered gambling: you always get something when you purchase them, even if it’s not what you hoped for. For that reason, a loot crate system does not trigger the gambling content descriptor. If something is considered gambling, it needs to follow a very specific set of legislation, which has all kinds of practical consequences for the company that runs it. Therefore, the games that get a PEGI gambling content descriptor either contain content that simulates what is considered gambling or they contain actual gambling with cash payouts. If PEGI would label something as gambling while it is not considered as such from a legal point of view, it would mostly create confusion. We are always monitoring such developments and mapping consumer complaints. We see a growing need for information about specific features in games and apps (social interaction, data sharing, digital purchases), but the challenge is that such features are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the market, yet they still come in very different shapes and sizes.”

This appears somewhat hardline given that PEGI’s descriptor of gambling content is used whenever any videogame “teaches or encourages” gambling. Such a descriptor would arguably cover gambling-like games or activities and the buying of loot boxes is ‘gambling-like’ at the very least. The same stance has been taken by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which rates videogames in Canada and the USA. A spokesman for the ESRB told Eurogamer that:

“ESRB does not consider [the buying of loot boxes] to be gambling because the player uses real money to pay for and obtain in-game content. The player is always guaranteed to receive something – even if the player doesn’t want what is received. Think of it like opening a pack of collectible cards: sometimes you’ll get a brand new, rare card, but other times you’ll get a pack full of cards you already have. That said, ESRB does disclose gambling content should it be present in a game via one of two content descriptors: Simulated Gambling (player can gamble without betting or wagering real cash or currency) and Real Gambling (player can gamble, including betting or wagering real cash or currency). Neither of these apply to loot boxes and similar mechanics.”

At present, there are a number of countries (mainly in South East Asia such as China and Japan) who do view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling and have incorporated such activities into their gambling regulation. However, most countries have either not considered regulating the buying of loot boxes at all, or (like the UK) have ruled out that buying loot boxes does not currently meet their regulatory definition of gambling. Although there has been little published in academic journals on loot boxes, a number of articles in the trade press have claimed that the buying of loot boxes can be problematic and/or addictive because they are designed using highly similar reward schedules to those used in the design of slot machines. This is something that have also pointed out in relation to similar activities to the buying of loot boxes where individuals play for points rather than money. Personally, I view the buying of loot boxes as a form of gambling particularly because the ‘prizes’ won are (in financial terms) often a lot less than that of the price paid. Obviously I am out of step in relation to the regulators in my own country, but if third party websites continue to host services where in-game virtual items can be bought and sold, the activity definitely constitutes a form of gambling by almost any definition of gambling currently used in the field of social sciences.

(N.B. This article uses material from a paper I recently published in Gaming Law Review)

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Alexandra, H. (2017). Loot boxes are designed to exploit us. Kotaku, October 13. https://kotaku.com/loot-boxes-are-designed-to-exploit-us-1819457592

Avard, A (2017). Video games have a loot box fetish, and it’s starting to harm the way we play. Games Radar, October 10. Located at: http://www.gamesradar.com/loot-boxes-shadow-of-war/

Gambling Commission (2017). Virtual currencies, esports and social casino gaming – position paper. Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Adolescent gambling and gambling-type games on social networking sites: Issues, concerns, and recommendations. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 33(2), 31-37.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Is the buying of loot boxes in videogames a form of gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review, 22(1), 52-54.

Griffiths, M.D. & Carran, M. (2015). Are online penny auctions a form of gambling? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 190-196.

Griffiths, M.D. & King, R. (2015). Are mini-games within RuneScape gambling or gaming? Gaming Law Review and Economics, 19, 64-643.

Hood, V. (2017). Are loot boxes gambling? Eurogamer, October 12. Located at: Located at: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-10-11-are-loot-boxes-gambling

Lawrence, N, (2017). The troubling psychology of pay-to-loot systems. IGN, April 23. Located at: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/04/24/the-troubling-psychology-of-pay-to-loot-systems

Perks, M. (2016). Limited edition loot boxes: Problematic gambling and monetization. Cube, October 11. Located at: https://medium.com/the-cube/limited-edition-loot-boxes-problematic-gambling-and-monetization-756819f2c54f

Wikipedia (2017). Loot box (2017). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loot_box

Wiltshire, W. (2017). Behind the addictive psychology and seductive art of loot boxes. PC Gamer, September 29. Located at: http://www.pcgamer.com/behind-the-addictive-psychology-and-seductive-art-of-loot-boxes/

To see or not to see: A brief look at hallucinations in virtual reality applications

As a teenager I was fascinated with LSD purely as a consequence of my love of The Beatles and its alleged association with songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds‘ (I say ‘alleged’ because all Beatle fanatics know that this song got its’ title from a drawing by John Lennon’s son Julian and that lyrically the song was inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll, the creator of Alice in Wonderland [AIW], a book which gave its’ name to AIW Syndrome that I examined in a couple of previous blogs).

When I first started teaching my ‘Addictive Behaviours’ module back in 1990, almost all my lectures concentrated on drug addictions (as opposed to behavioural addictions which now take centre stage in my teaching), and it was my session on hallucinogenic drugs (also known as psychedelic drugs) that was always the most fun to teach and the topic that students appeared to be most engaged in. Like many of my students, I have always been interested in altered states of consciousness both in my own research into addiction and the topic more generally.

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The reason why I mention all these things as that I did a media interview on the hallucinogenic effects of virtual reality products. The interview was based on comments by Microsoft researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco, who said that virtual reality will soon replace the need for hallucinogenic drugs. More specifically, she was quoted as saying:

“By 2027 we will have ubiquitous virtual reality systems that will provide such rich multi-sensorial experiences that will be capable of producing hallucinations which blend or alter perceived reality. Using this technology, humans will retrain, recalibrate and improve their perceptual systems…In contrast to current virtual reality systems that only stimulate visual and auditory senses, in the future the experience will expand to other sensory modalities including tactile with haptic devices“.

Claims that VR products have the potential to induce hallucinogenic experiences have already started appearing in the media. A recent story in the Daily Mail reported that there was already a VR app (SelfSound) that claimed it can reproduce the effects of hallucinogenic drugs and plays on the neurological phenomena known as synaesthesia and that a “program is used to promote mediation through creating abstract reality [and] plays face-melting music with synesthetic DMT-style visualizations uniquely generated in response to [a person’s] voice”. (DMT is an abbreviation for dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogenic drug).

Over the last seven years, I have published a series of studies with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gotari (some of them listed in the ‘Further reading’ section below) showing that hallucinations are common among video gamers in our working examining Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP). Therefore, it’s no surprise that VR games can do the same thing. We have reported that visual and auditory hallucinations are commonly experiences by regular videogame players.

For instance, one of our studies published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction found that some video gamers experience altered visual perceptions after playing (e.g., distorted versions of real world surroundings). Others saw video game images and misinterpreted real life objects after they had stopped playing. Gamers reported seeing video game menus popping up in front their eyes when they were in a conversation, or saw coloured images and ‘heads up’ displays when driving on the motorway. Our study analysed 656 experiences from 483 gamers collected in 54 online video game forums. Visual illusions can easily trick the brain, and staring at visual stimuli can cause ‘after-images’ or ‘ghost images’ among videogame players. We found that GTP were triggered by associations between video game experiences, and objects and activities in real life contexts. Our findings also raised questions about the effects of the exposure to specific visual effects used in video games.

We also reported that in some playing experiences, video game images appeared without awareness and control of the gamers, and in some cases, the images were uncomfortable, especially when gamers could not sleep or concentrate on something else. These experiences also resulted in irrational thoughts such as gamers questioning their own mental health, getting embarrassed or performing impulsive behaviours in social contexts. However, other gamers clearly thought that these experiences were fun and some even tried to induce them.

Visual experiences identified in GTP show us the interplay of physiological, perceptual and cognitive mechanisms and the potential of learning with video games even without awareness. It also invites us to reflect about the effects of prolonged exposure to synthetic stimuli and the challenges that the human mind affront due to the technological advances that are still to come. However, because we collected our data for most of our published studies from online video game forums, the psychological profile of the gamers in our studies are unknown. However, different gamers reported similar experiences in the same games. This highlights the relevance of the video games’ structural characteristics but gamers’ habits also appear to be crucial. Some gamers may be more susceptible than others to experience GTP. The effects of these experiences appear to be short-lived, but some gamers experience them recurrently. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that more research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Most of these GTP experiences are viewed positively but a small minority of players find them detrimental.

Whether such hallucinations – either in typical videogames or VR videogames – can be induced on demand is debatable. Very few players in our own research said they were able to induce hallucinations. At present, we simply don’t know what the long-term effects of VR gaming will be and that goes for VR-induced gaming hallucinations too. It may be the case that VR induced hallucinogenic states will be ‘safer’ than ones induced by psychedelic drugs as there is no ingestion of a psychoactive substance, but that’s just speculation on my part.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cawley, C. (2016). Virtual Reality could make you hallucinate; Don’t freak out. Tech Co, December 15. Located at: http://tech.co/virtual-reality-hallucinate-dont-freak-2016-12

Hamill, J. (2016). Windows of perception: Microsoft says virtual reality will soon have same mind-bending effects as LSD. The Sun, December 7. Located at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2347705/microsoft-says-virtual-reality-will-soon-have-same-mind-bending-effects-as-lsd/

Liberatore, S. (2016). That’s trippy! Watch the VR app that claims to be able to reproduce the effects of a hallucinogenic drug. Daily Mail, May 4, Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3572184/That-s-trippy-Watch-VR-app-claims-able-reproduce-effects-hallucinogenic-drug.html

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. In: Gamification: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp.1329-1345). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 588-594.

Rothman, P. (2014). Virtual Reality and Drugs – Yes, you should get high before using VR. H Plus Magazine, July 31. Located at: http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/07/31/virtual-reality-and-drugs-yes-you-should-get-high-before-using-vr/