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Every little ring: Another look at excessive smartphone use

Last week I did seven back-to-back BBC radio interviews concerning my thoughts on a new study on smartphone use carried out by Opinium Research for Virgin Mobile and reported in a number of papers including the Daily Mail. The company surveyed 2,004 British adults (aged 18 years and over) who own a smartphone as well 200 British teenagers and tweenagers aged between 10 and 17 years. The main findings were that:

  • British adults receive an average of 33,800 mobile phone messages and alerts annually
  • British adults spend the equivalent of 22 days a year checking messages on their smartphones (an average of 26 minutes a day)
  • An average smartphone user gets 93 buzzes a day
  • Those aged between 18 and 24 years have almost three times more messages receiving 239 messages and alerts a day on average (approximately 87,300 a year).
  • On average, Britons are members of six chat groups, although a small minority (2%) are members of 50 groups or more, rising to 7% among those aged 18 to 24 years.
  • One in four adults say they check a WhatsApp message instantly, with this increasing to almost one in three among 18 to 24-year-olds.
  • Smartphone users receive 427% more messages and notifications than they did a decade ago
  • Smartphone users sent 278% more messages than they did a decade ago

The survey found a contributing factor behind the surge in the number of messages received was the rise of group chats on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. In the press release, Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos (consumer and business psychologist at University College London) said:

“The boom in smartphone use was a positive trend and allowed consumers greater control over their lives. In an age where we are constantly surrounded by endless tasks, always flooded with a sea of data, smartphones allow us to manage our lives in a way that suits us. From calendars and reminders, to emails and instantaneous access to an encyclopaedia of human knowledge, smartphones give us total control, right at our fingertips.”


There was nothing in the study that I found particularly surprising but I was hoping to see what survey had found from those under 18 years of age (but nothing was reported in the national newspapers and I’ve been unable to track down anything beyond the press release).

In my radio interviews, most of the presenters wanted to know the extent to which individuals are now ‘addicted’ to their mobile phones. I then trotted out my usual response that ‘people are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to a bottle’ and said if there was anything addicting then it was the application (e.g., gaming, gambling, shopping, social networking, etc.) rather than the smartphone itself. I also went through the addiction components model and hypothesized what the behaviour of a smartphone addict would look like if they were genuinely addicted to their smartphone applications:

  • Salience – This occurs when using a smartphone becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their smartphone they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with smartphone use).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of using their smartphone and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ whenever they use their smartphone).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of time on a smartphone are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged on a smartphone, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend using a smartphone every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person is unable to access their smartphone because they have mislaid or lost it, are too ill to use it, in a place with no reception, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time on a smartphone.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive smartphone use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive smartphone use to be quickly restored after periods of control.

Using these criteria, I then went on to say that very few people would be classed as addicted to their smartphones. However, I did point out that such behaviour is on a continuum and that there may be a growing number of people that experience problematic smartphone use rather than being addicted. The examples I used included those individuals who would rather spend time on their smartphone than spending it with their partner and/or children, or individuals who spend so much time on their smartphone that it impacts on their job or their education (depending upon how old they are). Neither of these on their own (or together) necessarily indicate addictive use of smartphones but could be a sign that such individuals are at risk for developing an addiction to the applications on their smartphone. However, I would still argue that someone that spends all their time on social networking sites and social media (via their mobile phone) are a social media addict rather than a smartphone addict although others might see this as a semantic difference rather than a difference of substance. Whatever we call the behaviour, there does seem to be growing evidence that smartphones play a major role in people’s lives and that a small minority appear to have problematic use (as outlined in a number of studies that I have co-authored – see ‘Further reading’ below).

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

Further reading

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

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. doi: 10.1007/s11469-017-9787-2

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., Romo, L. Morvan, Y., Kern, L., … Griffiths, M.D., … Billieux, J. (2017). Self-reported dependence on mobile phones in young adults: A European cross-cultural empirical survey. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 168-177.

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. doi: 10.1556/2006.6.2017.080

Richardson, M., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Problematic smartphone use, nature connectedness, and anxiety. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.10