Back in 2007, a number of psychologists including Dr. Kimberly Young (Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, Pennsylvania, US), and myself were interviewed for a BBC news article about whether it was possible to become addicted to the online auction site eBay. In the article, Dr Young said she was seeing increasing numbers of people who were developing a problem concerning their eBay use. Dr Young claimed it was not the item bidded for on eBay itself that provided the “addictive buzz” but the excitement of bidding against others for it, and winning. She was quoted as saying that:
“eBay addicts will be there for the last few minutes of an online auction ready to outbid and bag the prize – ‘snipers’ as they are called in eBay circles. It gets more serious when eBay addicts feel a sense of accomplishment when they are the highest bidder and begin to bid on items they don’t need. Most people with eBay addiction] have financial and relationship problems. Some people come [for treatment] because they have been fired from work – doing eBay at work is not permitted, so they seek therapy after something like this happens. One woman was in debt by $400,000 and took a second mortgage out on her home and all the money from her retirement account. Her husband was furious when he found out. It does get pretty bad, with the lies to sustain the behaviour”
In an earlier 2004 paper on internet addiction published in American Behavioral Scientist, Dr. Young mentioned online auction [eBay] addiction in passing but presented no empirical evidence of its existence. The same observation was also made in a later 2009 paper by Dr. Tonino Cantelmi, and Dr. Massimo Talls in the Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitation (but again in the absence empirical evidence).
So can eBay really be addictive? All addictions rely on being rewarded in some way. Sometimes the rewards are financial (you win money), social (you get praised for your behaviour), physical (you get a buzz when you do the activity) and/or psychological (the activity raises your self-esteem). As I noted in a previous blog on internet addiction, people can develop addictions to the Internet (such as chat room addictions) and have addictions on the Internet (such as online gambling addictions, online gaming addictions, online shopping addictions). In many cases, the Internet provides an easily accessible and convenient medium that people can engage in their favourite behaviour (such as looking for online pornography or playing online computer games). In a small number of cases this may become addictive.
So what about eBay addiction? Most of the cases I have come across are from press and/or non-peer reviewed reports. Dr. Kimberley Young wrote briefly about a female eBay addict (called ‘Chris’) in an unpublished paper entitled ‘Subtypes of internet addiction’ available from her website (although to be honest there was no real detail provided). In another case (reported in the popular press), a 25-year old female estate agent, Charlotte Mahoney was featured as an eBay addict in an article in The Sun. In a seven-month period she spent £5000. In her newspaper interview, Mahoney said:
“Everybody was talking about [eBay], so I logged on for a look and couldn’t believe it when I saw loads of brand new designer items up for sale. When my bid for a gorgeous Dior T-shirt was accepted I was over the moon. The second buzz came when the parcel arrived. I would bid obsessively until I got something. It was so easy but also exciting because you knew you were getting a bargain. My card details were already online so it didn’t even feel like I was really spending. In fact I avoided buying anything that required payment by cheque, because it made me feel guilty. Once I spent more than £800 in a single weekend. The fantastic feeling I got when the postman arrived with all those parcels made it worth it. Subconsciously, I must have known it was getting out of hand because I arranged for all my parcels to be sent to work just so I could smuggle them home past my boyfriend. When I finally worked out that I had spent £5,500 since last December, I felt sick. [eBay] can be dangerously addictive”.
On the face of it, there are certainly some things in this account that are suggestive of addiction but there is just not enough detail to make an informed judgment. Dr Richard Wood, one of my good friends and research colleagues was also interviewed for the BBC on eBay addiction and was reported as saying:
“The label ‘addiction’ is being over used and incorrectly applied. There is no such diagnosis as “eBay” addiction that has been incorporated into any respectable criteria. Instead people like Dr Young are adapting the criteria for substance abuse and/or pathological gambling. Of course, some people will do all kinds of activities too much if they are distracting enough to allow them to escape from their reality. I would argue that these are not bona-fide cases of addiction unless the activity itself has severe negative consequences, that the experience itself is the main driver of their behaviour, and that it affects enough people that it can be considered problematic in and of itself. eBay does not fit into that category. Furthermore, by over applying the addiction label we are in danger of both unduly scaring the public and trivializing the negative impacts of genuine addiction cases”
Empirical research into eBay addiction (and online auction addiction more generally) has begun to occur. For instance, a 2007 paper by Dr. Cara Peters and Dr. Charles Bodkin in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services examined problematic behaviour among online auction users. They explored (i) which consumer behaviours could be construed as problematic and potentially addictive, (ii) which of these behaviours generally reflect the core components of addiction, and (iii) and what the implications are for online auction retailers, managers, and society. Using qualitative methods, the authors identified four key themes related to eBay addiction among their small number of participants: (i) psychological distress, (ii) habitual usage, (iii) negative consequences, and (iv) dependence, withdrawal and self-regulation.
A 2008 paper by Chih-Chien Wang in the Proceedings of the Asia-Pacific Services Computing Conference examined the influence of harmonious passion and obsessive passion on online auction behaviour and online auction addiction on 322 individuals. It also investigated whether people exhibiting compulsive buying behaviour had spent more time on online auction web sites. They found that people with obsessive passion were more addicted to online auctions than those with harmonious passion, and that people with higher compulsive buying behaviour spent more time on online auctions.
Finally, a 2011 study carried out by Dr. Ofir Turel and colleagues published in the MIS Quarerly also explored online auction addiction. They reported their findings from two empirical studies of 132 and 223 eBay users (using three different operationalizations of addiction). I have to admit that I found it hard to understand what their study actually showed. They carried out various factor analyses and showed that some key factors explained significant amounts of the variance but didn’t give any insight into what these main factors were tapping into. In their own words, their results indicated that:
“The level of online auction addiction distorts the way the IT artifact is perceived. Informing a range of cognition-modification processes, addiction to online auctions augments user perceptions of enjoyment, usefulness, and ease of use attributed to the technology, which in turn influence usage intentions. Overall, consistent with behavioral addiction models, the findings indicate that users’ levels of online auction addiction influence their reasoned IT usage decisions by altering users’ belief systems. The formation of maladaptive perceptions is driven by a combination of memory-, learning-, and bias-based cognition modification processes”.
The empirical evidence on eBay addiction to date is somewhat sketchy. In the article in The Sun newspaper (mentioned above), I was asked to provide an outline of possible ‘danger signs’ that point to an unhealthy interest in eBay. If eBay addiction existed, I wrote that I would expect to see the following:
- e-Bay becomes the most important thing in the person’s life and they are totally preoccupied thinking about being on e-Bay.
- The person has built up the amount of time they have spent on e-Bay to the point where it is significantly impacting on other important activities (and preferring to engage in eBay use over other activities).
- The person experiences withdrawal symptoms when they are not on e-Bay (e.g., moodiness and irritability, anxiety, difficulty in concentrating, sweaty palms etc.).
- The person uses e-Bay as a way of modifying their mood. They either use e-Bay to get aroused (to get a buzz or a high) or they use it to tranquilize themselves (to escape or de-stress)
- The person’s e-Bay use compromises everything else in their life and affects their job, outside hobbies/interests, and relationships with partner, children, and/or friends.
I was also asked to speculate on why e-Bay might be addictive. Based on the anecdotal press and unpublished academic reports, I wrote that e-Bay use would appear to take over a very tiny minority of people’s lives. These people appear to spend vast amounts of time online in the hope of getting bargains and/or making money. Because there is a financial consequence, it would appear that many of the addictive effects and/or consequences are similar to addictive gambling. Getting a great bargain is like winning – and people want to do it again as quickly as possible. Putting an item up for sale and hardly breaking even is like losing. To eliminate the negative feelings, a person goes back onto e-Bay in the hope of feeling good again. This for some individuals may become an addictive cycle and may be a hard habit to break.
It may take some time (if ever) before online auction addiction is accepted as a genuine addiction. However, I do believe it is theoretically possible to become addicted even if the evidence at present doesn’t stand up to in-depth scrutiny.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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