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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.

Odds on: Ten ways to help prevent problem gambling

[Please note: The following article was written with Dr. Michael Auer]

Problem gambling has become a major issue in many countries worldwide. In this short article we provide ten ways to help prevent problem gambling.

Raise the minimum age of all forms of commercial gambling to 18 years – Research has consistently shown that the younger a person starts to gamble, the more likely they are to develop gambling problems. Stopping problem gambling in adolescence is a key step in preventing problem gambling in the first place. Any venue or website that hosts gambling games should have effective age verification procedures.

Restrict the most harmful types of gambling – Most research shows that gambling activities which can be gambled on continuously such as slot machines tend to be far more problematic than discontinuous games such as weekly lotteries. More harmful forms of gambling should be restricted to dedicated gambling venues rather than housed in non-dedicated gambling premises (such as supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants).

Educate players to pre-commit when engaging in the most harmful types of gambling – Ideally, the most harmful forms of gambling should have mandatory limit-setting options for players to set their own voluntary time and money limits when playing the games. Gambling operators can also use mandatory loss limits to keep gambling expenditure to a minimum.

Take responsibility for where problem gambling lies – While all individuals are ultimately responsible for their own gambling behaviour, other stakeholders – including the gambling industry – have control over the structural and situational characteristics of gambling products. Government policymakers and legislators have a responsibility to ensure that gambling products are tightly regulated and to ensure that any given jurisdiction has the infrastructure to keep gambling problems to a minimum. Gambling operators are responsible for all advertising and marketing and need to ensure that the content is socially responsible and promotes responsible gambling. Within gambling venues, all practices and procedures should be socially responsible (such as not giving free alcohol while gambling, and no ATM machines on the gaming floor).

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Put social responsibility at the heart of gambling operating practice – The most socially responsible gambling operators always puts player protection and harm minimisation at the heart of their business. They need to provide all information about their products so that individuals can make an informed choice about whether to gamble in the first place. They should advertise their products responsibly and provide their clientele with tools to aid responsible gambling, and provide help and guidance for those who think they are developing a gambling problem or have one.

Raise awareness about gambling among health practitioners and the general public – Problem gambling may be perceived as a somewhat ‘grey’ area in the field of health. However, there is an urgent need to enhance awareness about gambling-related problems within the general public and the medical and health professions.

Identify at-risk players Big Data and Artificial Intelligence are common approaches applied in behavioural analysis across many industries. Online gambling and personalized land-based gambling operators can detect harmful behavioural patterns such as chasing losses or binge gambling. Such players can be excluded from direct marketing, specific types of games, and/or contacted to prevent the development of problem gambling.

Use personalized feedbackResearch across many areas such as sports, health behaviour, as well as gambling has shown that personalized feedback can effectively change behaviour. Using behavioural data available in online gambling and personalized land-based venues, gamblers can be informed in real-time about behavioural changes in order to make them more aware and use pre-commitment tools such as limit-setting and/or self-exclusion.   

Set up both general and targeted gambling prevention initiatives The goals of gambling intervention are to (i) prevent gambling-related problems, (ii) promote informed, balanced attitudes, and choices, and (iii) protect vulnerable groups. The guiding principles for action on gambling are therefore prevention, health promotion, harm reduction, and personal and social responsibility. This includes:

  • General awareness raising (e.g. public education campaigns through advertisements on television, radio, newspapers).
  • Targeted prevention (e.g. education programs and campaigns for particularly vulnerable populations such as senior citizens, adolescents, ethnic minorities).
  • Awareness raising within gambling establishments (e.g. brochures and leaflets describing problem gambling, indicative warning signs, where help for problems can be sought such as problem gambling helplines, referral service, telephone counselling web-based chatrooms for problem gamblers, and outpatient treatment).
  • Training materials (e.g. training videos about problem gambling shown in schools, job centres).

Educate and training those working in the gambling industry about problem gambling – All gaming personnel in any gambling establishments from shop retailers to croupiers should receive ongoing training regarding responsible gambling and problem gambling.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Voluntary limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, 29, 647-660.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Personalised feedback in the promotion of responsible gambling: A brief overview. Responsible Gambling Review, 1, 27-36.

Auer, M., Malischnig, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Is ‘pop-up’ messaging in online slot machine gambling effective? An empirical research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 29, 1-10.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Testing normative and self-appraisal feedback in an online slot-machine pop-up message in a real-world setting. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00339.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The use of personalized behavioral feedback for problematic online gamblers: An empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1406. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01406.

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Personalized behavioral feedback for online gamblers: A real world empirical study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1875. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01875.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Evaluating responsible gambling tools using behavioural tracking data. Casino and Gaming International, 31, 41-45.

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Gambling advertising, responsible gambling, and problem gambling: A brief overview. Casino and Gaming International, 27, 57-60.

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2016). Should voluntary self-exclusion by gamblers be used as a proxy measure for problem gambling? Journal of Addiction Medicine and Therapy, 2(2), 00019.

Griffiths, M.D., Harris, A. & Auer, M. (2016). A brief overview of behavioural feedback in promoting responsible gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 26, 65-70.

Harris, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). A critical review of the harm-minimisation tools available for electronic gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 33, 187–221.

Oehler, S., Banzer, R., Gruenerbl, A., Malischnig, D., Griffiths, M.D. & Haring, C. (2017). Principles for developing benchmark criteria for staff training in responsible gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 33, 167-186.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding positive play: An exploration of playing experiences and responsible gambling practices. Journal of Gambling Studies, 31, 1715-1734.

Wood, R.T.A., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Rating the suitability of responsible gambling features for specific game types: A resource for optimizing responsible gambling strategy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 94–112.