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The junkie generation? Teenage “addiction” to social media

Earlier today I appeared live on my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) commenting on a study released by the Allen Carr Addiction Clinics (ACAC) concerning teenage addiction (and more specifically addiction to social media). The study was a survey of 1,000 British teenagers aged 12 to 18 years old and the press release went with the heading “INFO UK BREEDING A GENERATION OF TEENAGE ADDICTS SAYS NEW STUDY” (their capital letters, not mine) with the sub-headline that “83% of UK teenagers would struggle to go ‘cold turkey’ from social media and their other vices for a month”.

As someone that has spent almost 30 years studying ‘technological addictions’ I was interested in the survey’s findings. I tried to get hold of the actual report by contacting the ACAC Press Office. They were very helpful and sent me a copy of the Excel file containing the raw data (entitled ‘Addicted Britain’). They also informed me that the data were collected for ACAC by the market research company OnePoll, and that the teenagers filled out the survey online (with parents’ permission). However, there is no actual published report with the findings (and more importantly, no methodological details). I asked ACAC if they knew the response rate (for instance, was the online survey sent to 10,000 teenagers to get their 1,000 responses that would give a response rate of 10%), and how were the teenagers recruited in the first place. Also, as the survey was carried out online, those teenagers who are the most tech-savvy and feel confident online, would be more likely to participate than those who don’t like (or rarely use) online applications. Before I comment on the survey itself, I would just like to provide some excerpts from the press release that was sent out:

“The explosion of social media, selfies and mobile devices is priming a generation of UK teenagers for a lifelong struggle with addiction…83% of UK teenagers admit they would struggle to give up their vices for a whole month. [The study] unveiled a worrying trend of growing numbers of young people constantly striving to find the next thrill, mostly via technology and social media. When asked which behaviours they could abstain from, UK teens said they would most struggle living without texting (66%), followed by social networking (58%), junk food (28%) and alcohol (6%). The report found that the average teen checks social media 11 times a days, sends 17 text messages and takes a ‘selfie’ picture every four days. This constant pursuit of stimulation, peer approval, instant gratification, and elements of narcissism are all potential indicators of addictive behaviour. The study highlights that parents across the UK are inadvertently becoming ‘co-dependents’ enabling their child’s addictions by providing them with cash albeit with the best of intentions”.

The first thing that struck me reading this text was the use of the word “vice”. Most dictionary definitions of a vice is “immoral or wicked behaviour” or criminal activities involving prostitution, pornography, or drugs”. As far as I am concerned, social networking, junk food, and alcohol are not vices (especially social networking). The whole wording of the press release is written in a way to pathologise normal behaviours such as engaging in social media use. Also, asking teenagers about which behaviours they could not abstain from for a month tells us almost nothing about addiction. All it tells us is that the activities that teenagers most engage in are the ones they would find hardest not to do. This is just common sense. My main hobbies are listening to music on my i-Pod and reading. I would really have difficulty in not listening to my favourite music or reading for a whole month but I’m not addicted to music or reading.

The ACAC kindly sent me all the questions that were asked in the survey and there was no kind of addiction scale embedded in any of the questions asked. Basically, the survey does not investigate teenagers’ potential addictions, as no screening instrument for any behaviour asked about was included in the survey. There were some attitude questions asking whether activities like social networking could be addictive, but as I have argued in previous blogs, almost any activity that is constantly rewarding can be potentially addictive.

That’s not so say we shouldn’t be concerned about teenagers’ excessive use of technology as my own research has shown that a small minority of teenagers do appear to have problems and/or be addicted to various online activities. However, as my research has shown, doing something excessively doesn’t mean that it is addictive. As I have noted in a number of my academic papers, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasm add to life and addictions take away from it. The perceived overuse of technology by the vast majority of teenagers is quite clearly something that is life-enhancing and positive with no detrimental effects whatsover.

Given that the vast majority of teenagers use the social media to communicate and interact with friends, I was surprised that ACAC’s findings were not closer to 100% saying that they couldn’t abstain for one month. Which teenagers would find it easy not to use social media for a month given how important it is in their day-to-day social lives? The findings in the press release also quote John Dicey (Global Managing Director and Senior Therapist of ACAC) who said:

“The findings of this report are cause for concern and highlight a generation of young people exhibiting many of the hallmarks of addictive behaviour. The explosion of technology we have seen since the late 90’s offers incredible opportunities to our youth – the constant stimulation provided by access to the internet for example can be a good or a bad thing. There’s a price to pay. This study indicates that huge numbers of young people are developing compulsions and behaviours that they’re not entirely in control of and cannot financially support. Unless we educate our young people as to the dangers of constant stimulation and consumption, we are sleepwalking towards an epidemic of adulthood addiction in the future”.

While my own research shows that a small minority of teenagers experience problems concerning various online activities, there was almost nothing in the ACAC report “huge numbers of young people are developing compulsions and behaviours that they’re not entirely in control of”. The use of the word “huge” is what we psychologists call a ‘fuzzy quantifier’ (as what is ‘huge’ to one person may not be ‘huge’ to another). Mr. Dicey’s conclusions simply cannot be made from the data collected. He says that the report shows that many teenagers are displaying the “hallmarks of addictive behaviour” but given no addiction screening instruments were used, the data do not show this. The press release uses the following findings to make the claim that “the abundance of technology that UK teens can access seems to be creating a generation of ‘tech addicts’!”

“One-third of UK teens (32%) admit they check social media more than 10 times a day. The report also found that the average teen checks social media 11 times day, which equals once every 1.5 hours they are awake. UK teens are also avid takers of ‘selfies’, with over a quarter taking more than 10 a month. The average teen takes 7.4 selfies a month, equalling one every four days on average…The plethora of technology available to teens is also having a worrying impact on their attention spans. 1 in 4 teens have over 20 apps on their smartphones, with the average teen having 13 apps on their device. The constant search for the ‘next thing’ is evidenced in how they use apps – 46% admitted that they stop using or delete an app less than a week after using it, freeing up storage space for a new app”.

Anyone that has teenagers (I have three screenagers myself) will tell you that the above statistics indicate adolescent normality not addiction. Checking social media 10 times a day does not indicate addiction in the slightest. Although I have never taken a selfie, I check my social media far more than 10 times a day. Deleting apps to make way for other apps is no different from me removing songs on my i-Pod every week to make way for other songs I want to listen to. Again, there is absolutely nothing in these statistics that provides evidence of adolescent addiction.

Anyone that is aware of my work will know that I take the issue of teenage technology use seriously and that I firmly believe that a small minority of adolescents experience addiction to various online applications. However, studies like the one done for ACAC do little for the area as the rhetoric of the claims are unsupported by their data.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2014). The technological convergence of gambling and gaming practices. In Richard, D.C.S., Blaszczynski, A. & Nower, L. (Eds.). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Disordered Gambling (pp. 327-346). Chichester: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 1-4.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D. & Binder, J. (2013). Internet addiction in students: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 959-966.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

The ‘real feel’ deal and the psychology of online gambling experiences

Online gambling regulation is a hot topic and many online gaming operators are wondering what the effect of increased (and arguably stricter) legislative measures will have on the online gaming market. Based on the online gambling studies that our research unit has carried out, I would guess that overall it is good news for the industry as I believe this will lead to an increased uptake by those people who are somewhat sceptical or agnostic about online gambling. So why do I think this?

Despite the increase in online gambling research over the last ten years, there has been very little empirical research examining why people gamble online or – just as importantly – why they don’t gamble online. Because there is so little research in this area, Dr Abby McCormack and I published a study in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction with adult online and offline gamblers examining the motivating and inhibiting factors in online gambling.

Our findings on the inhibiting factors of online gambling identified one major overarching theme as to what people don’t like about gambling online. In a nutshell, gamblers said that the authenticity of gambling was reduced when gambling online. However, many online gaming operators have now introduced more ‘realistic’ live gaming experiences (e.g., via webcams) so this may diminish over time. However, we also identified other online gaming inhibitors (i.e., the asocial nature and characteristics of the internet, the reduced psychological value of gambling with virtual money, and concerns about the safety of online gambling websites and their trustworthiness). These factors all contributed to the reduced authenticity of the online gambling experience.

Issues around website security, safety and trust, were all major inhibitors that decreased the likelihood of punters gambling online. Predictably, we found that online gamblers were much more likely than the offline gamblers and non-gamblers to believe that the gambling websites were secure. However, there was a perception that some websites were considered more trustworthy than others, and consequently the gamblers generally played on well known sites (e.g., companies that were well established offline).

So what are the implications of these findings for stricter online gaming regulation? From a psychological perspective, research on how and why people access commercial websites indicates that one of the most important factors is trust. If people know and trust the name, they are more likely to use that service. Reliability of the service provider is also a related key factor. Stricter regulation is likely to increase consumer confidence if they feel more protected when they perceive the service to be unfair and/or goes wrong. It is likely to change sceptical gamblers’ perceptions about the reliability and trustworthiness of online gaming operators for the better (no pun intended!).

Even with increased protective legislation, research shows that some punters will always have concerns about Internet security and may never be happy about putting their personal details online. But this mistrust will diminish over the long-term as the ‘screenagers’ of today (the so-called ‘digital natives’) are the potential gamblers of tomorrow. Digital natives generally have more positive attitudes towards online commercial operations. Today’s children and younger adolescents have never known a world without the Internet, mobile phones and interactive television, and are therefore tech-savvy, have no techno-phobia, and are very trusting of these new technologies. For many ‘screenagers’, their first gambling experiences may come not in a traditional offline environment but via the Internet, mobile phone or interactive television. Stricter regulation may not even be an issue for tomorrow’s gamblers as they are already accessing a myriad of online services and are highly trusting of such services.

Despite the lack of trust by some players, the online gaming industry shouldn’t be too worried about stricter regulation. The prevalence of online gambling is steadily increasing and there are lots of reasons why some punters prefer online to offline gambling. Our research findings indicate that those who prefer online (to offline) gambling like the increased convenience, the greater value for money, the greater variety of games, and the anonymity.

Furthermore, online gambling has many advantages for punters as it saves time because they don’t have to travel anywhere, they are not restricted by opening hours, and they can gamble from the comfort of their own home. The removal of unnecessary time consumption (e.g., travelling to a gambling venue) through online gambling is another barrier to gambling participation that had been removed. Increased regulation is highly unlikely to change any of these important motivating factors for gambling online.

Finally, compared to offline gamblers, our research also indicates that online gamblers are more likely to be male, young adults, single, have good qualifications, and in professional and managerial employment. Given this particular demographic profile, this group appears to be highly educated, and are likely to make well informed decisions to gamble online based on due consideration of the facts at hand. Again, stricter regulation is something that is likely to strengthen the decision to gamble rather than inhibit it.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Socio-demographic correlates of internet gambling: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199-202.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Motivating and inhibiting factors in online gambling behaviour: A grounded theory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 39-53.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

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.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). An examination of participation in online gambling activities and the relationship with problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(1), 31-41.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Characteristics and predictors of problem gambling on the internet. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 634-657.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Effects on gambling behaviour of developments in information technology: A grounded theoretical framework. International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning, 1(4), 36-48.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.

Totally wired: Techno-stress and how to beat it

Technology is essential to most people’s working lives. The potential for constant availability via smartphones, laptops and tablets has facilitated the speed of business life and has become a mixed blessing. For some, wireless links offer the luxury of slipping out of the office for a round of golf or across the globe for an extended holiday. Others feel overwhelmed and less creative when pressured by constant ‘connectedness’. The potential for technological overload has created a new type of anxiety that has been referred to as ‘techno-stress’. Techno-stress can arise from many different routes. These include:

  • Technophobia: Fear of change and working with new technology can be a stressor in itself.
  • Technological failure: As work becomes less centralized and more flexible, people have to become their own IT managers. Coping with the after-effects of technology going wrong (hardware or software) can be incredibly stressful (for instance, most of us know how stressful life suddenly becomes when we lose wi-fi access – even if it is for short periods). This can result in behaviour such as ‘tele-rage’.
  • Management surveillance: Management in some organizations install software that tracks employees’ movements both in and out of the office. It is possible to read staff e-mails and monitor time spent at the computer to ensure maximum productivity. The feeling of being constantly monitored can also be a potential stressor.
  • Information overload: Constant ringing telephones, mobile phone texts, and “You have mail” messages on the internet demand instant action. Coupled with junk e-mail and Internet searches that produce thousands of ‘hits’, people can get caught up in the culture of immediacy. As a result, people become overwhelmed with information and will tend to do and say things that do not produce desired results, and that increases their stress levels.
  • Social isolation: Although technology allows flexibility in working practices, it has the potential to make working more socially isolating. This, again, can be stressful.
  • Fear of redundancy: Some people work harder and longer hours because they fear losing their jobs. Coupled with this, there are companies who are making people redundant all as a result of new technologies being installed. This fear can be stress-inducing.

There are now many studies showing the negative impact that technological advance can have on psychological and physical wellbeing. Some psychologists claim that round-the-clock technology upsets the natural rhythms of both body and brain. Muscles in our bodies are there to be used yet we sit for hours and hours at our terminals using only arm and hand muscles. In addition, rising levels of obesity have been levelled at children (so-called ‘screenagers’) and the computer game culture (topics that I have covered in previous blogs)..

Technology enables people to work from anywhere. No one knows if you’re at the beach or in your office. While on vacation people can spend time on their laptops and chat with clients via their mobile phone. For some – if they were unable to keep in touch with work – they wouldn’t go away for so long in the first place. However, not everyone can handle the extreme accessibility, and constant interruptions from work can irritate those that they are with. The work-family line can become blurred in an undesirable way. Lives become even more work-centred than it already is and can become a workday that never ends.

I can certainly think of times when I would take calls around the clock, seven days a week. Such commitment can build successful businesses but can cost heavily at a personal level. It can compromise both social relationships and health. Partners may complain that there isn’t any time that is just theirs. They may feel that their workaholic partner is never entirely there with them. Man may happily trade the income they have to spend more time with their partner. Technology has the potential to create problems in people’s lives and with their health.

The number of people and amount of time spent working during vacations and after office hours keeps growing as technology encroaches into leisure time. Some time ago, psychologist, Professor Larry Rosen of California State University did a four-year study of business attitudes and technology use. The research indicated 75% of managers and executives worked at home, toiling at their computer for an hour or two each day during traditional ‘down time’. They communicated less with family. Furthermore, they became dysfunctional, made life difficult for the family, and became more detached from their friends. Such findings are not isolated. For instance, another survey reported 62% of Hong Kong business managers said that dealing with too much information had caused personal relationships to suffer, and 51% said it adversely affected their health. Results from a comparison of 11 different countries indicated 40% felt that information overload was taking a toll on relationships and 33% reported technology was causing a health decline.

Technology has changed family dynamics, because technology tends to be a solo (rather than group) activity. Instead of sitting around talking together, different members may be spending their time accessing different technologies (e-mails, videogames, etc.). Even in the same room, people can be in a ‘techno-cocoon’. The technology world is so inviting and fascinating, and it has holding power. In addition to everyone staying in their own little techno-world, youngsters, who have grown up surrounded by beeping, colorful gadgets, tend to be more techno-savvy than their parents. Parents must set boundaries and remain in control of the gadgets.

Technology encourages us take advantage of every moment. For instance, during air-travel, laptops, smartphones and tablets, allow people to transform traditional ‘dead time’ into work. Rather than spending a few minutes unwinding or pulling thoughts together, people convert time in a taxi or airport into productive minutes. But such capabilities foster what some might refer to as ‘multi-tasking madness’. No longer content to complete one thing at a time, people conduct business while driving, check stock quotes while waiting in line at the shopping checkout, and read e-mail as they talk on the phone. The brain allows us to keep many balls in the air, but trying to process so much at once becomes taxing for a mind attempting to resolve unfinished business. However, multi-taskers may have difficulty concentrating and soundly sleeping. They may become irritable, because biochemical and physiological systems remain in a state of hyper-arousal. At 2am in the morning, the brain may come up with a solution to something left hanging earlier in the day. Multi-tasking eventually catches up with everyone.

Unless we set clear limits, we are going to be continuously multitasking. Even the less connected feel the stress. Research shows an increase in the number of people who have embraced electronic gadgetry. But those wavering can’t escape the technological revolution. Stress tends to take on a variety of forms. They can be angry things are changing so rapidly. They can be frustrated by how much time it takes to learn new things. They can be irritated, annoyed or feel inferior.

Just because technology makes a task possible, doesn’t mean you have to always take advantage. Companies must introduce initiatives to manage new technology rather than the technology managing the individuals. Stress management strategies include:

  • Involving workers in decisions regarding the introduction and implementation of new technology
  • Creating social networks for people working remotely or hot-desking
  • Letting the new technology liberate the workers by creating more flexible working arrangements for a better balance between work and home
  • Training people in how to get the most out of technology and making it user-friendly

Finally, here are a few hints and tips on how to beat techno-stress:

  • When surfing for information, decide ahead of time how long you will commit to the endeavor. Accept the fact more data exists than you can possibly find and use.
  • Learn the most effective places to look for what you need. If an Internet search top 20 hits fail to yield useful information, refine the original criteria. People can go from one page to another on the Internet, for two to three hours, and not have much to show for it.
  • Limit e-mail retrieval to a few times per day (say when you first get in if you have a lot of international contacts and before you leave work). Furthermore, turn off instant messaging system or the volume on your computer. This is only helpful when you are expecting a message.
  • When you do check your e-mails, reply immediately to e-mails to acknowledge receipt but don’t necessarily give a detailed reply. Give a considered response later.
  • Indulge in a break from e-mail during short business trips. This will make travelling less stressful. In this connected time, it’s very important to disconnect oneself from time to time so as to get some distance and be able to rise above just reacting to immediate things. In those peaceful moments one can think bigger, slower and more inner questions. A break from technology frees up time for friends, family and appreciating the things that make the world unique.
  • If you need to concentrate – to write a proposal, discuss an important issue with a client or think through a solution to a vexing problem – turn off ringers on phones and wireless devices and close the email inbox window.
  • Develop a plan to handle a technology crisis, with tactics aimed at dealing with everything from hard-drive meltdowns and empty ink cartridges to a low-battery beep. Create back-up files and know how you’re going to get back online.
  • One should always ask, ‘Am I using technology or is technology using me?’ and ‘What’s really important in life, and what’s not?’ Our job is to take back control from technology and then enjoy the benefits that it can give us without feeling the stresses.
  • Finally, take a daily break from gadgets to exercise, read or garden. You will get a refreshed point of view and perspective. You have to have a balance in your life. It will make you a more contented person. By consciously restricting time with technology the stress will begin to subside.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D.  (2002).  Occupational health issues concerning Internet use in the workplace. Work and Stress, 16, 283-287.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004).  Tips on…Managing your e-mails. British Medical Journal Careers, 329, 240.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Vol. I-V (Second Edition). pp. 2170-2175. Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2004). Youth and technology: The case of gambling, video-game playing and the Internet. In J. Derevensky & R. Gupta (Eds.), Gambling Problems in Youth: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives (pp. 101-120). New York: Kluwer.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dennis, F. (2000). How to beat techno-stress. Independent on Sunday (Reality section), May 7, p.22.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Clinical interventions for technology-based problems: Excessive Internet and video game use. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 26, 43-56.

Sutton, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Emails with unintended consequences: New lessons for policy and practice in work, public office and private life. In P. Hills (Ed.). As Others See Us: Selected Essays In Human Communication. pp. 160-182. Dereham: Peter Francis Publishers.

No time for the crime: Excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction

On Sunday February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their debut on US television. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated audience of 73 million people. One of the most quoted consequences associated with this particular show was that between 8pm and 9pm when the show was aired, a number of news reports claimed that there was no reported incidence of juvenile crime across America during the time of the broadcast.  The editor of Newsweek, B.F. Henry, went as far as to claim that “there wasn’t so much as a hubcap stolen” during the hour that The Beatles were on the show.

This apocryphal tale, at the very least, shows the apparent compelling logic in the argument that when an activity is so engrossing it has the capacity to stop people engaging in other types of activity such as crime. Inspired by a speculative blog post on the topic, my friend and research colleague Dr. Mike Sutton failed to disconfirm what Dr. Sutton and I have called the Crime Substitution Hypothesis. We recently published a small paper in the journal Education and Health that examined the extent to which popular youth activity (namely video gaming and social networking) may be having an effect on youth offending and victimization.

Young people’s use of technology (the so called ‘screenagers’ and ‘digital natives’) has increased greatly over the last two decades and a significant proportion of daily time is spent in front of various screen interfaces most notably videogames, mobile phones (e.g., SMS) and the internet (e.g., social networking sites like Bebo, Facebook). These ‘digital natives’ have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television, and are therefore tech-savvy, have no techno-phobia, and very trusting of these new technologies.

One of the most empirically researched areas is in the area of adolescent video gaming. Negative consequences of gaming have included addiction, increased aggression, and a variety of medical consequences, such as repetitive strain injuries, obesity, and photosensitive epilepsy. There is certainly evidence that when taken to excess, videogame playing can in some cases be addictive, especially online videogame playing where the game never pauses or ends, and has the potential to be a 24/7 activity. However, there are many reported benefits that adolescents can get from playing videogames. These can be educational, social and/or therapeutic.

Another positive benefit of playing video games along with activities like social networking may be the capacity to reduce youth crime. The reason why videogames may have implications for crime reduction is their use as ‘distractors’ (such as in the role of pain management). The reasoning is that ‘distractor tasks’ consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. I have noted in a number of my academic papers that the main reasons that videogames make good distractors are because they:

  • Are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e. challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Appear to appeal most to adolescents

For instance, one study reported the case of an eight-year-old boy with neurodermatitis being given a handheld videogame to prevent him from picking at his face. Where previous treatments had failed, the use of the game kept his hands occupied and within two weeks the affected area had healed. A number of studies have demonstrated that videogames can provide cognitive distraction for children undergoing chemotherapy. All these studies have reported that distracted child patients report less nausea after treatment (when compared with control groups), and that playing videogames reduced the amount of painkillers the children needed during treatment. The very reasons why video games may be of benefit therapeutically may also be applied to video games in a crime reduction context (i.e., the playing of video games is so cognitively distracting that that there is little time to do or think about anything else).

Consequently, there is a developing school of thought arguing that peoples’ participation (especially excessive use) in video gaming and social networking may be contributory factors that may partly explain the fall in crime rates in recent years. For instance, the economist Larry Katz was quoted in a 2010 issue of The Economist suggesting that the playing of video games may be playing a role in crime reduction. Katz’ reasoning is simple – keeping people busy keeps them out of trouble. There appears to be some statistical support for such a hypothesis as the decrease in US crime rates appears to show an inverse correlational relationship with increased sales of video game consoles and video games. Clearly this correlational evidence should be treated with caution as it says nothing about causation. However, it does provide a hypothesis that could be the subject of future empirical testing.

Could the rise in video game playing and social networking be a major cause of what criminologists claim is an unfathomable drop in crime, and if not, then why not? Routine Activity Theory predicts that if a substantial numbers of young people are not on the streets either as victims or offenders then overall high volume ‘crime opportunities’ would diminish, resulting in an overall drop in high volume crime rates. We have no idea yet whether what we might call the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ is plausible. Therefore, in our recent paper, Dr. Sutton and I set out some ideas that support it as something possibly worthy of further exploration.

As highlighted above, research suggests some young people are spending many hours playing video games or social networking. Research also suggests that video games can be engrossing, addictive and in some cases compulsive. Additionally, research has failed to establish that violent media is either a necessary or sufficient condition for causing crime. Therefore, taking a Routine Activity Approach, it would seem that an increase in video gaming might feasibly lead to a rise in the illicit market for stolen computers and games consoles. However, there might be fewer thieves to supply it if:

  • Fewer potential offenders are getting addicted to opiates and other drugs, and/or misusing alcohol out of boredom because they have escaped boredom in the real world by entering the more exciting world of cyberspace to play and interact with others.
  • Potential offenders and victims are gaming excessively and/or compulsively checking Facebook and/or other social networking sites.
  • The game players and other ‘netizens’ are playing at home so (a) fewer potential offenders on the streets and fewer potential victims, and (b) houses are occupied for longer and so less susceptible to burglary.
  • Immersion and gaming prowess and reputation may be sufficient substitutes for the same things in the offline (real) world
  • The Internet allows more people to work from home so teleworking may reduce the pool of “available” victims on the street and also ensure fewer homes are empty during the day.

The evidence provided for the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ in our paper was anecdotal and/or correlational in nature but we would argue that this would provide a fruitful avenue for further research. Such research into ‘crime substitution’ and gaming/social networking might involve: (i) measuring time spent gaming and social networking by groups that empirical research predicts are at greater risk of becoming offenders, (ii) conducting ethnographic studies with young people to gauge whether, and if so to what extent, gaming and social networking are used as a substitute for risky activities in the offline (real) world, and do this in relation to both potential offending and victimization, (iii) examining issues of offline and online peer status and how this may impact on consequent behaviour (including criminal activity), and (iv) further examining the correlation between console and game sales – and any data on playing time and type of games – with the general crime trend over the past 20 years.

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

Further reading

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

De Freitas, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). The convergence of gaming practices with other media forms: what potential for learning? A review of the literature. Learning, Media and Technology, 33, 11-20.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005b). The therapeutic value of videogames. In Goldstein J. & Raessens J. (eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Internet and video-game addiction. In C. Essau (Ed.), Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment and Treatment (pp.231-267).  San Diego: Elselvier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Sutton, M (2010) Routine Activities Theory, the Internet and the 15-Year crime drop. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton. Best Thinking: http://www.bestthinking.com/thinkers/science/social_sciences/sociology/mike-sutton?tab=blog&blogpostid=9634,9634

Screenage kicks: A brief look at children’s use of information technology

The following blog is an expanded version of an article that was published on my university website as one of the regular ‘Expert Opinion’ columns.

Last week week, a lot of media coverage was given to research on young children’s IT use carried out by the US pressure group Common Sense Media and electronic learning experts VTech. Based on a survey of 1,463 parents of children aged under eight years, it was reported that 38% of children aged under two years of age had used iPhones and/or Kindles for playing games or watching films. The study, called ‘Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, 2013’ also reported that (i) one in three young children use a mobile phone or tablet before they could talk, (ii) 29% of children started using electronic gadgets as toddlers, (iii) children aged under two years spent an average of 15 minutes a day using electronic gadgets, and that (iv) children aged between two and four years spent average of two hours a day watching television. Are these findings a cause for concern?

Over the last decade I have taken part in many radio debates about the influence of information technology on the lives of children. Typically, I am invited onto such programmes to inject a hint of caution along the lines that engaging with technology is OK for children and adolescents in moderation, but that excess involvement with all things electronic may have a downside. To me this seems little more than common sense. As I repeatedly say to people, I am certainly not anti-technology, but pro-responsible the use of it.

Most people will be aware that computers were first introduced into schools in the early-1980s. Since then, information technology has been steadily growing in importance in education rising from a minority option to a compulsory subject in the National Curriculum. Over the years I have watched as many national initiatives have attempted to get children acquainted with IT as early as possible.

No-one can deny that IT skills should be an important part of children’s educational development. However, there seem to be endless numbers of questions that we need to answer before proceeding at the current pace. For instance, should the seemingly growing emphasis on IT be continued at the expense of more traditional classroom learning experiences? Is the idea to increase the amount of classroom work done on computers going to breed a new generation of children who have forgotten how to hold a pen? Should we be introducing children to computers from the earliest age possible? Will computers ever replace teachers?

As a psychologist specializing in the effect of interactive technology in the lives of children, it still surprises me how late in my own life I was acquainted with modern technology. Back in 1982, I experienced my first taste of computers as a teenager playing Donkey Kong on my father’s Commodore 64. It wasn’t until I was 18 years of age and at university that I first did something educational on a computer. The fact that I do not feel I have been left behind in today’s technological generation suggests that children do not necessarily have to begin as young as possible to appreciate the educational benefits of IT (i.e. if I can catch up having not started until I was in my late teens, then there is no reason why others shouldn’t be able to do so).

There is no doubt that children’s day-to-day leisure habits have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today’s modern teenager may well have a television, CD player and computer game console in their bedroom and many have online access to the internet at home and at home via smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In essence, today’s teenagers live their lives in a multi-media world and are more “screenager” than teenager. What is the long-term effect of this change in children’s leisure behaviour? Over the last decade there have been countless independent research projects all claiming to give pointers as to the long-term effects of children spending more and more time in front of the screen. A decade ago, eminent psychologists (such as Philip Zimbardo) made the observation that there had been a dramatic increase in shyness rates, a doubling of children’s obesity levels, and that children were spending less time involved in physical activities (e.g. sports) than they used to. I cannot put all the blame for these observations at the door of IT developments, but I do think they play a contributory role.

There appears to be a movement that automatically views IT as the way forward on lots of things (particularly in education), and that the only way of self-betterment amongst our children is through increasing IT use. There is little good reason to assume that more always means better. It is my belief that children at school need an integrated balance between computer-assisted learning (including the development of IT skills), traditional learning methods (paper and pen, the three ‘R’s’ etc.), physical sporting activities, and enhancement of play and peer development. That is not to say that computers and the internet do not have their positive side. Even a quick think on the subject would indicate that computers can:

  • Be fun and exciting providing an innovative way of learning
  • Provide elements of interactivity that can stimulate learning
  • Provide elements of curiosity and challenge which can be crucial to learning
  • Equip children with state-of -the-art technology
  • Help overcome techno-phobia (a condition well-known among many adults)
  • Eliminate gender imbalance in IT use (males have traditionally tended to be more avid IT users)
  • Help in the development of transferable IT skills

However, on the down side, (and the last thing I want to be is a kill-joy here) computers (including internet use) can in some cases:

  • Be socially isolating (perhaps leading to increased shyness)
  • Be socially limiting (perhaps leading to physical inactivity and obesity)
  • Be time-consuming, engrossing, and in extreme cases addictive
  • Provide easy accessibility to exploitative material (e.g. pornography)
  • Provide easy accessibility to adult activities (e.g. internet gambling)
  • Provide IT skills that quickly change or become obsolete
  • Cause repetitive strain injuries
  • Produce unintended “sloppiness” (i.e. computers can correct spelling and grammar)

As can be seen by the list of ‘negatives’, some of the problems are not from the IT medium itself but from what children can do in that medium (e.g., access pornography or gamble at virtual casinos on the internet). Both parents and teachers need to be aware of IT’s limitations and need to put safeguards in place to protect children from unwanted exposure to adult material.

To re-iterate and expand on what I said earlier, there needs to be integration between lots of different activities (not just IT), and there needs to be a balance between IT and traditional education so that they can combine to form a richer experience for the children of tomorrow. IT will continue to have a large impact in the lives of our children. What teachers and parents need to concentrate on is not what to learn but how to learn. This in itself will have an impact on both the role of teachers and the contribution that parents can make.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D.J. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

Spekman,M.L.C., Konijn,E.A, Roelofsma,P.H.M.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Gaming addiction, definition, and measurement: A large-scale empirical study, Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 2150-2155.