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Ringing the changes: Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction?

Over the last decade, I have published various papers on excessive mobile phone use both in general and related to particular aspects of mobile phone use (such as gambling and gaming via mobile phones (see ‘Further reading’ below). Recently, some colleagues and I (and led by Dr. Joël Billieux) published a new review in the journal Current Addiction Reports examining disordered mobile phone use.

I don’t think many people would say that their lives are worse because of mobile phones as the positives appear to greatly outweigh the negatives. However, in the scientific literature, excessive mobile phone use has been linked with self-reported dependence and addiction-like symptoms, sleep interference, financial problems, dangerous use (phoning while driving), prohibited use (phoning in banned areas), and mobile phone-based aggressive behaviours (e.g., cyberbullying).

Despite accumulating evidence that mobile phone use can become problematic and lead to negative consequences, its incidence, prevalence, and symptomatology remain a matter of much debate. For instance, our recent review noted that prevalence studies conducted within the last decade have reported highly variable rates of problematic use ranging from just above 0% to more than 35%. This is mainly due to the fact most studies in the field have been conducted in the absence of a theoretical rationale.

Too often, excessive mobile phone use has simply been conceptualized as a behavioural addiction and subsequently develop screening tools using items adapted from the substance use and pathological gambling literature, without taking into account either the specificities of mobile phone “addiction” (e.g., dysfunctional mobile phone use may often be related to interpersonal processes) or the fact that the most recent generation of mobile phones (i.e., smartphones) are tools that – like the internet – allow the involvement in a wide range of activities going far beyond traditional oral and written (SMS) communication between individuals (e.g., gaming, gambling, social networking, shopping, etc.).

The first scientific studies examining problematic mobile phone use (PMPU) were published a decade ago. Since then, the number of published studies on the topic has grown substantially. At present, several terms are frequently used to describe the phenomenon, the more popular being ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) addiction’, ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) dependence’ or ‘nomophobia’ (that refers to the fear of not being able to use the mobile phone).

PMPU is generally conceptualized as a behavioural addiction including the core components of addictive behaviours, such as cognitive salience, loss of control, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. Accordingly, the criteria (and screening tools developed using such criteria) that have been proposed to diagnose an addiction to the mobile phone have been directly transposed from those classifying and diagnosing other addictive behaviours, i.e., the criteria for substance use and pathological gambling. For example, in a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, Dr. Peter Smetaniuk reported a prevalence of PMPU around 20% in U.S. undergraduate students using adapted survey items that were initially developed to diagnose disordered gambling.

Although many scholars believe that PMPU is a behavioural addiction, evidence is still lacking that either confirms or rejects such conceptualization. Indeed, the fact that this condition can be considered as an addiction is to date only supported by exploratory studies relying on self-report data collected via convenience samples. More specifically, there is a crucial lack of evidence that similar neurobiological and psychological mechanisms are involved in the aetiology of mobile phone addiction compared to other chemical and behavioural addictions. Such types of evidence played a major role in the recent recognition of Gambling Disorder and Internet Gaming Disorder as addictive disorders in the latest (fifth) addiction of the DSM (i.e., DSM-5) In particular, three key features of addictive behaviours, namely loss of control, tolerance and withdrawal, have – to date – received very limited empirical support in the field of mobile phone addiction research.

Given these concerns, it appears that the empirical evidence supporting the conceptualization of PMPU as a genuine addictive behaviour is currently scarce. However, this does not mean that PMPU is not a genuine addictive behaviour (at least for a subgroup of individuals displaying PMPU symptoms), but rather that the nature and amount of the available data at the present time are not sufficient to draw definitive and valid conclusions. Therefore, further studies are required. In particular, longitudinal and experimental research is needed to obtain behavioural and neurobiological correlates of PMPU. In the absence of such types of data, all attempts to consider PMPU within the framework of behavioural addictions will remain tentative. It is worth noting here that it took decades of empirical research before disordered gambling was officially recognized as an addiction (as opposed to a disorder of impulse control) in the DSM-5.

The current conceptual chaos surrounding PMPU research can also be related to the fact that while the number of empirical studies is growing quickly, these studies have (to date) primarily been based on concepts borrowed from other disorders (e.g., problematic Internet use, pathological gambling, substance abuse, etc.). This approach is atheoretical and lacks specificity with regard to the phenomenon under investigation. In fact, by adopting such a ‘confirmatory approach’ relying on deductive quantitative studies, important findings that are unique to the experience of PMPU have been neglected. As an illustration, no qualitative analyses of PMPU exist, and only a few models have been proposed. This implies that most studies have been conducted without a theoretical rationale that goes beyond transposing what is known about addictions in the analysis of PMPU.

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

Additional input: Joël Billieux, Pierre Maurage, Olatz Lopez-Fernandez and Daria J. Kuss

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

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

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

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

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

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.

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.