“When I first told people back in 2016 that I was getting my first tattoo, the most common response I got from those who were already inked themselves was ‘You’re going to get addicted to getting tattoos’. I found this notion a little ridiculous – I was nervous enough just getting a small one on my ankle. I couldn’t imagine getting hooked on something that was not only expensive, but painful and permanent. Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve since gotten two more tattoos, each one progressively larger and more detailed, and I’m already planning my fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. As I was warned, I have indeed gotten hooked. For me, it’s both because I love how it makes me feel about my body, and because I’ve gotten to discover a new form of expression in my mid-30s. According to a 2018 report from Statista, roughly 46 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and 30 percent of these people have two or three –19 percent have up to four or five. Clearly, other people love getting inked just as much as I do. But while tattoos can be fun to have, are they actually addictive?
This opening quote is by Amy Semigran, a journalist who interviewed me earlier this year for an article she was writing on addictions to tattoos for the online magazine Mic (‘Are tattoos really addictive? There’s a reason you keep coming back for more’). Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I’ve written various articles on the psychology of tattoos over the years including articles on stigmatophilia (sexual arousal from a partner who is marked or scarred in some way, which can also include body tattoos), the use of extreme tattooing in films, a look at the TV programme ‘My Tattoo Addiction’, and an article on whether having tattoos makes women more sexually attractive.
In my interview, I told Semigran that in order for a person’s behaviour to be deemed an addiction, it needs to meet my six specific criteria: salience (where tattooing becomes the most important thing in a person’s life), mood modification (e.g., the euphoric feelings that accompany tattooing), tolerance (the gradual build-up of tattooing with the individual spending more and more time engaged in tattooing), withdrawal symptoms (negative psychological and/or physical consequences as a result of not being able to get tattooed such as extreme moodiness or irritability), conflict (tattooing compromising other areas of the individual’s life such as personal relationships and education/occupation), and relapse (returning to tattooing after a period of abstinence). Therefore, I told Semigran that tattooing does not meet my criteria for addiction. I also added that while many behaviours can become impulsive, addiction relies on constant rewards or reinforcement. Alcoholics, gambling addicts, or drug addicts feed their habits with frequent rewarding experiences (at least in the short-term) but even the most heavily tattooed people are not engaging in the behaviour regularly.
However, it is feasible that tattooing could be a behaviour that results in constant preoccupation (e.g., constantly thinking about getting the next tattoo, looking at tattoo designs, reading tattooing magazines, talking with other heavily tattooed individuals and sharing experiences, working as a tattooist, etc.). However, constantly being preoccupied by tattooing is (in itself) not a problem, unless of course it starts to cause serious conflict with other day-to-day activities. Semigran also interviewed Dr. Daniel Selling (a psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group in New York) for her article. He was quoted as saying:
“The word addiction in the context of tattoos is misused…while you can’t have a tattoo addiction, per se, it can be a dependence where you feel some elements of need and withdrawal…and perhaps spend too much time or money getting work…Being tattooed can also lead to an adrenaline rush of sorts. It’s the body tolerating annoyance and pain coupled with excitement and change”.
I agree that some people can spend too much time or money or spend money they don’t have on getting tattoos, but this is not addiction (and I would also argue that it is not dependence either). For many people, getting tattoos might be more of a passion than a problem, and there is nothing wrong with being passionate about what you do. I am passionate about work and some people describe me as being addicted to work or of being a ‘workaholic’ but given there are almost no negative consequences of me working hard and loving my job, it certainly can’t be viewed as an addiction.
As Semigran pointed out in her article, for many people, their passion and interest in tattooing is something that enhances their lives rather than interferes with it (this is exactly the same as my assertion – published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Substance Use) that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it. Semigran interviewed Lisa Orth, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist Lisa Orth who has around 100 tattoos). She said:
“It’s an incredible feeling to be able to permanently customize yourself with artwork. [The] feeling of self-expression can be an empowering experience…It’s one of the main reasons [my] clients come back again and again. Tattooing can be a way of engaging with, and taking possession of, one’s body in an active way…[It] can allow people to define themselves visually in a way that forces the observer to see a person as they most authentically see themselves. That’s a big draw (so to speak) for those who repeatedly get inked…Getting tattooed is one of the remaining rituals in our culture that are physical, mental and emotional challenges, where you come out transformed on the other side”.
Again, this explanation has nothing to do with addiction and everything to do with self-identity and passion. Many addiction psychologists, would also add that if he behaviour causes harm or injury to the individual, it may also be a sign or symptom of possible addiction. However, Semigran quoted American psychologist, Dr. Tracy Alderman from an article she wrote for Psychology Today examining the extent to which tattooing and body piercings can be classed as self-harm.
“[E]njoying a rush is different than participating in self-harm. Since tattooing is a needle penetrating skin, that can potentially feed someone’s desire to feel pain or change their appearance due to unhappiness with themselves…Once in a while there will be cases in which piercing and/or tattoos do fit the definition of self-injury. But overwhelmingly,self-injury is a distinct behavior, in definition, method and purpose, from tattooing and piercing”.
I read Dr. Alderman’s article and her views mirror my own when it comes to the psychology of tattooing:
“[A] main issue separating self-injurious acts from tattoos and piercings is that of pride. Most people who get tattooed and/or pierced are proud of their new decorations. They want to show others their ink, their studs, their plugs. They want to tell the story of the pain, the fear, the experience. In contrast, those who hurt themselves generally don’t tell anyone about it. Self-injurers go to great lengths to cover and disguise their wounds and scars. Self-injurers are not proud of their new decorations”.
Semigran also quoted Dr. Suzanne Phillips who recently wrote an article for PsychCentral entitled ‘Tattoos after trauma-do they have healing potential’. Dr. Phillips notes:
“[A tattoo being used] to register a traumatic event is a powerful re-doing…It starts at the body’s barrier of protection, the skin, and uses it as a canvas to bear witness, express, release and unlock the viscerally felt impact of trauma”.
There’s no doubt that tattooing has become part of mainstream culture over the past two decades and there are a number of scholars who claim in the scientific literature that getting tattoos can be potentially addictive (such as Dr. Ivan Sosin; Dr. Allyna Murray and Dr. Tanya Tompkins; see ‘Further Reading’ below) but based on my own addiction criteria I remain to be convinced. However, whenever I think about the psychology of tattooing, I am always reminded of the saying: “Tattoos are like potato chips … you can’t have just one”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Alderman, T. (2009). Tattoos and piercings: Self-injury? Psychology Today, December 10. Located at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/the-scarred-soul/200912/tattoos-and-piercings-self-injury?amp
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.
Kovacsik, R., Griffiths, M.D., Pontes, H., Soós, I., de la Vega, R., Ruíz-Barquín, R., Demetrovics, Z., & Szabo, A. (2019). The role of passion in exercise addiction, exercise volume, and exercise intensity in long-term exercisers. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-018-9880-1
Murray, A. M., & Tompkins, T. L. (2013). Tattoos as a behavioral addiction. Science and Social Sciences, Submission 26. Located at: https://digitalcommons.linfield.edu/studsymp_sci/2013/all/26
Phillips, S. (2019). Tattoos after trauma-do they have healing potential? PsychCentral, March 27. Located at: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2012/12/tattoos-after-trauma-do-they-have-healing-potential/
Semigran, A. (2019). Are tattoos really addictive? There’s a reason you keep coming back for more. Mic, July 3. Located at: https://www.mic.com/p/are-tattoos-really-addictive-theres-a-reason-you-keep-coming-back-for-more-18166085
Sosin, I. (2014). EPA-0786-Tattoo as a subculture and new form of substantional addiction: The problem identification. European Psychiatry, 29, Supplement 1, 1.
Szabo, A., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z., de la Vega, R., Ruíz-Barquín, R., Soós, I. &Kovacsik, R. (2019). Obsessive and harmonious passion in physically active Spanish and Hungarian men and women: A brief report on cultural and gender differences. International Journal of Psychology, 54, 598-603.
A few weeks ago I published the third of three articles on ‘box set bingeing’ (people like myself who sit and watch a whole television series at once either on DVD or on television catch-up services). Not long after writing the last article, a paper was published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions about the development of a new psychometric instrument that assesses problematic television series watching – the Problematic Series Watching Scale (PSWS) – developed by Dr. Gabor Orosz and his colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (Hungary). The authors noted that:
“[Problematic series watching] might be a relevant issue for many people because accessing series by downloading or streaming is (a) very cheap (or free), (b) it is available for almost everyone who has broadband Internet access, (c) it does not depend on a certain place and time (i.e. playing squash depends on a certain place and time), (d) series have a high variety – everyone can find one which fits his/her interest, (e) they are not age- and socio-economic status-dependent, (f) it does not take effort to watch them, [and] (g) and they are constructed to be highly enjoyable and often contain cliffhangers which motivate the viewer to continue. These characteristics are highly similar to the ones mentioned by Cooper (1998) regarding Internet and pornography…In our research, we aimed to differentiate problematic series watching from the concept of television addiction as we focused on the content of the problematic use (series watching) rather than on the medium through which the problematic use happens (television). In our research, we observed problematic series watching which could be done either through a television (i.e. classical TV series) or a screen attached to a computer (i.e. Netflix)”.
The new scale was developed with over 1,100 participants and was based on my ‘addiction components model’ and comprised the following questions which can each be answered ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘always’. Each of the six items taps into a criterion for addiction (i.e., salience, tolerance, mood modification, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse). More specifically, the questions asks During the last year, how often have you:
- Thought of how you could free up more time to watch series? [Salience]
- Spent much more time watching series than initially intended? [Tolerance]
- Watched series in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression? [Mood modification]
- Been told by others to cut down on watching series without listening to them? [Relapse]
- Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from watching series? [Withdrawal]
- Ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of series watching? [Conflict]
For those of you interested in the psychometric properties, the scale had good factor structure and reliability.
“Respondents watch series more than one hour per day which is more than one-fifth of their free time which indicated that series watching might be an important free time activity. However, the amount of free time one has is not associated with PSWS scores. Women had higher scores on PSWS and respondents with higher education had lower scores on it…Given the lack of empirical research on series watching, we supposed that it might be similar to other problematic screen-related behaviors (e.g. online gaming, Internet or Facebook use)… Other possible covariates could be examined in the future such as loneliness or urgency. Also, further investigation is needed whether extensive series watching can lead to health and psychosocial problems…PSWS scores are positively related with time spent on series watching, whereas the amount of free time does not have an effect on PSWS scores. In the more and more digitalized world there are many forces which encourage people watching online series. In the light of these changes, research on problematic series watching will be increasingly relevant”.
The authors also acknowledged that problematic television series watching doesn’t appear to affect many people and that we should be careful of pathologizing everyday behaviours as behavioural addictions (a criticism that has been made against some of my own research papers more recently – with ‘dance addiction’ and ‘study addiction’ being the most obvious ones).
Dr. Orosz and his colleagues have also just published another paper on problematic series watching in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This second paper examined correlates of passion toward screen-based activities (i.e., problematic series watching and Facebook use). The paper included two studies comprising young adults (Study 1 with 256 individuals, and Study 2 with 420 individuals) who completed the Passion Scale with respect to their series watching and Facebook use as well as examining impulsivity. The Passion Scale comprises two types of passion – obsessive passion (negative, pressured, and controlling) and harmonious passion (positive, flexible, and related to intrinsic motivation). The results showed that impulsivity predicted obsessive (but not harmonious) passion, and that obsessive passion was positively associated with Facebook overuse whereas harmonious passion was positively associated with series watching. They concluded that it was the type of passion underlying the involvement in excessive screen-based activity that determines what’s experienced by the individual.
My argument has always been that depending upon the definition of ‘addiction’ used, almost any activity can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are in place. The watching of DVD or television box sets can certainly be rewarding and reinforcing but I imagine most people are like myself in that they occasionally experience negative consequences as a result of the activity (lack of sleep due to going to bed very late, or ignoring family members while watching an episode or four of your favourite programmes) but that overall the problems are short-lived and have few long-term consequences.
[I ought to note that I have recently been working with Dr. Orosz in the area of workaholism and that we recently published a paper in the topic in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction – see ‘Further reading’ below).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.
Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, DOI: 10.1556/2006.5.2016.024
Bates, D. (2015). Watching TV box-set marathons is warning sign you’re lonely and depressed – and will also make you fat. Daily Mail, January 29. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2931572/Love-marathon-TV-session-warning-sign-lonely-depressed.html
Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1(2), 187–193.
Daily Edge (2014). 11 signs of you’re suffering from a binge-watching problem. Located at: http://www.dailyedge.ie/binge-watching-problem-signs-1391910-Apr2014/
Kompare, D. (2006). Publishing flow DVD Box Sets and the reconception of television. Television & New Media, 7(4), 335-360.
Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.
Orosz, G., Bőthe, B., & Tóth-Király, I. (2016). The development of the Problematic Series WatchingScale (PSWS). Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(1), 144-150.
Orosz, G., Dombi, E., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2016). Analyzing models of work addiction: Single factor and bi-factor models of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI 10.1007/s11469-015-9613-7
Orosz, G., Vallerand, R. J., Bőthe, B., Tóth-Király, I., & Paskuj, B. (2016). On the correlates of passion for screen-based behaviors: The case of impulsivity and the problematic and non-problematic Facebook use and TV series watching. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 167-176.
Spangler, T. (2013). Poll of online TV watchers finds 61% watch 2-3 episodes in one sitting at least every few weeks. Variety, December 13. Located at: http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-survey-binge-watching-is-not-weird-or-unusual-1200952292/
Sussman, S., & Moran, M.B. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(3), 125-132.
Walton-Pattison, E., Dombrowski, S.U. & Presseau, J. (2016). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379