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If phonely: Are you addicted to your mobile phone?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by Debating Europe (DE) about smartphone addiction. I was asked four questions and my responses were transcribed, edited, and published on the DE website on July 11. Only the responses to two of the questions were published, so my blog today provides the full transcript of my interview. I have emboldened each of the four questions and my response follows each question.

Vicki worries about the impact of smartphones on children. She thinks that parents nowadays are too prone to buying the latest phones for their kids, without taking into consideration possible alternatives. What are the risks of children being addicted to their phones?

Well, first thing to say is that children and adults are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to a bottle. What we’re really talking about here is the application that people have on smartphones. Obviously, children now seem to getting smartphones at a younger and younger age. I’m often asked what is an appropriate age to give children smartphones. There is no right answer on this, but I certainly don’t advocate giving smartphones to children under the age of 11 years.

I think when children move to their secondary schools, most children in the class will have a smartphone, and to not give your child a smartphone can ostracise them from the class. The issue about smartphones in terms of excessive use is that sometimes parents do actually pathologise their children’s excessive smartphone use, particularly if they don’t use a smartphone much themselves. For me, the issue is whether their smartphone use interferes with the other important things in their lives?

There are typically four things I ask parents: One, is smartphone use affecting your child’s education and homework? Two, is their smartphone use affecting their physical education? Three. is their smartphone use affecting the chores you expect your children to do around the house? And, finally, does the smartphone use affect their face-to-face interaction with their friends? Typically, most parents, if they’ve answered honestly, will answer that the smartphone doesn’t affect any of those four domains. But if a parent does feel it’s affecting those four domains, then it is the parent’s responsibility to do something about it.

As a parent myself, I know that taking a smartphone off a child can be very difficult sometimes and can lead to negative reactions by the child. But at the end of the day, a parent is there to parent. They’re there to oversee their child’s development into – hopefully – a thriving adult who’s got all the capacities to go on in the world. Using smartphones, unfortunately or fortunately – depending upon your viewpoint – is now a natural thing and, particularly in teenage years, that is what children do. So I think it comes down to everything in moderation and parents absolutely have the right to restrict screen time and in extreme circumstances actually take the smartphones away.

smartphone-addiction

Stella thinks we’re being too negative about mobile phones. She thinks technology such as smartphones actually increases the sense of community and allows for expression of opinions. What would you say to her? Is she right to be so optimistic or should it be tempered?

It’s all about moderation. I personally think the advantages of smartphones far outweigh the disadvantages. I’m actually an unusual person. I actually gave using up my mobile phone a number of years ago, and I’ve now learned to live without one. But – to be honest – particularly for most teenagers, this is absolutely essential in their day-to-day social armoury. I don’t think there’s any argument that there should be a ban or a prohibition on smartphones because, as I said, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

The scientific research says that a very small minority seem to overuse their smartphones, particularly young people aged between 14-to-25 years. We’ve got teenagers, older adolescents and emerging adults who heavily use their smartphones. I think most of that use is what I call ‘habitual use’. It’s not ‘problematic use’, it’s just something that people get into a habit of doing, always looking at their mobile phones even when there hasn’t been a ‘ping’ or a beep to say there’s been a notification or a message. People still automatically look at their smartphone even if there’s no sound. It’s almost like a classically conditioned response.

I think more people pathologise use. For most people, their smartphone use is not pathological in any way, shape, or form. It’s just that, sometimes, excessive use is pathologised by people who don’t like mobile phones. I notice mobile phones when I’m in a restaurant or a pub, because I don’t have one myself. I’m actually very conscious when somebody else is looking at their mobile phone during mid-conversation, and that has led to this phrase ‘phubbing’, which is ‘phone snubbing’ and which goes on all the time. But that, in and of itself, is not an addiction and is not excessive.

I certainly think that in terms of the question asked, I do think there’s a lot of good things to say about mobile phones and I wouldn’t want to be in a position where they’re not around because for some people they’re life-savers and for some it’s part of their social armoury. I do think that the way social media operators use their psychological hooks to get people to look at their phones is something where the onus is on the social media operators rather than the individuals.    

Reader ‘Randomguy2017’ is sceptical of the benefits of technological progress. He argues that depression and anxiety are higher than ever, as our addiction to smartphones grow. Is there a link between the two?

As far as I’m aware – and I may be wrong – there is no scientific longitudinal study that has looked at the relationship between smartphone use, depression and anxiety. I certainly think it’s a case where it’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ thing. If you’re somebody that’s prone to anxiety or depression, you’re more likely to use smartphones or the Internet as a way masking depression and anxiety. There’s also some research that suggests excessive use of smartphones and the Internet can lead to social anxiety and depression. So, like I said before, there’s a bit of ‘chicken and the egg’ here. It may be also be that there is a bit of both.

Again, I would really stress that the number of people that would be genuinely addicted to applications on their smartphone are very few and far between. I think what we’ve got more now is that the excessive smartphone use sometimes leads to problematic behaviour. It could be that you’re looking at your smartphone while you’re driving, or you prefer to look at your smartphone rather than talk to somebody in front of you face-to-face. Those kind of things, they are what I would say are ‘problematic’ and annoying and, in the case of driving, could actually be fatal, but none of those are necessarily addictive or pathological.

However, I do think we have to put these things into perspective. The vast majority of people that use smartphone-based technologies, it’s something that’s life-affirming, life-enhancing, that adds to their life. But that doesn’t take away the fact that small minority out there that their use of smartphones takes away from other important things in their life. And in a tiny minority of cases the application that people are engaging in online whether its social networking, gaming, or gambling might be potentially addictive. But I take a holistic approach in this, in that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Emil is concerned about the privacy implications of our reliance on phones. Is he correct in assuming hackers can easily access what we do on our phones?

This is not my research area as I don’t look at privacy issues in relation to Internet and smartphone use. However, I’ve got access to people’s data from gambling companies and we do research on that data. I think that people have got to realise that anything they do online, when you’ve signed up to do anything, whether it’s a gambling service, a gaming service, a social networking site, is that you are – in effect – giving your data away.

When my kids come to me and say to me, ‘Can I do this, it’s free?’ I have to educate my children when anything is free, via smartphone or the Internet, then you yourself are the product that’s actually being sold. It’s very hard to educate a 12 or 13-year-old about that, but I think you can say to adults that their data is being used and sold in ways that they never imagined.

But I do think that this ‘big data’ revolution that we’ve got now can result in very good potential uses of that data, particularly at an aggregate level. But I certainly know that on an individual level, I don’t like my own data being used. If I sign up and buy things from Amazon, I know they’re going to use my data. If I sign up to use Facebook, I know my data is being used some way. So it’s a bit of give and take. In Europe, we’ve just had new regulation regarding data privacy. Obviously governments are trying to get on top of this, but we now live in a digital world, we leave digital footprints, and our data is going to be used in ways we never thought it might be used in the first place. That is the trade-off between having all these advantages of new technologies versus those privacy issues.

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

Further reading

Balakrishnan, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). ‘Addictive’ smartphone games and their features: A largescale qualitative study using online reviews by videogame players. International Journal of Mental Health and Addictions, in press.

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.

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, 16, 393-403.

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., Pontes, H.M., Griffiths, M.D., Dawes, C., … Billieux, J. (2018). Measurement invariance of the short version of the Problematic Mobile Phone Use Questionnaire (PMPUQ-SV) across eight languages. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15, 1213. doi:10.3390/ijerph15061213

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, 7, 88-99.

Richardson, M., Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Problematic smartphone use, nature connectedness, and anxiety. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 109-116.

Story rebellion: A brief look at ‘news addiction’

Earlier this year, I was contacted by a BBC reporter asking me what the latest research on ‘news addiction’ was. I politely told him I was unaware of any such research and that if ‘news addiction’ existed, it would be more akin to ‘television addiction’ or ‘boxset bingeing’. About a month after that call, a paper on ‘news addiction’ was published in the Journal of the Dow University of Health Sciences Karachi by Pakistani psychologists Ghulam Ishaq, Rafia Rafique, and Muhammad Asif.

I have to admit that some might say I’m a bit of a ‘news junkie’. As soon as I get up in the morning or as soon as I come home from work I switch on the radio or television to listen to the news. However, I do not consider my love of listening to the news to be an addiction, and I suspect most people like me wouldn’t either. Of course, there are now other ways for individuals to get their ‘news fix’ including thousands of online news sites and via social media which is why Ishaq and his colleagues decided to look at the construct of ‘news addiction’. They claimed that:

“People are persuaded towards news. Similarly, engrossment of certain individuals in any domain from politics, sports, global issues, arson or terrorism can also promote news habituation or addiction and intensify inspection towards news. News addiction comes under the term behavioral-related behavior…When somebody interacts with news, this gives him/her satisfying feelings and sensations that he/she is not able to get in other ways. The reinforcement an individual gets from these feelings compels him to repeat their behavior to get these types of feelings and sensations repeatedly… eventually causing a disturbance in every sphere of life… individuals who are addicted to news feel themselves much obsessed to check the news in uncontrollable ways”.

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 16.42.08Theoretically there is no reason why individuals cannot be addicted to reading and/or listening to the news as long as they are being constantly rewarded for their behaviour. In fact, the authors used some of my papers on behavioural addiction more generally to argue for the construct of ‘news addiction’ as a construct to be empirically investigated. In their study, Ishaq and colleagues wanted to examine the relationship between (the personality construct of) conscientiousness, neuroticism, self-control, and news addiction. Conscientiousness is a personality trait and refers to individuals who are orderly, careful, and well organised. Neuroticism is another major personality trait and refers to individuals who have high mental instability such as depression and high anxiety. The researchers hypothesised that there would be negative correlation between conscientiousness and news addiction, and that neuroticism would be positively correlated with news addiction.

To test their hypotheses, a survey was completed by 300 participants (aged 18 to 60 years; average age 39 years) from major cities of the Punjab (Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur, Faisalabad, Sargodha). The authors developed their own 19-item News Addiction Scale (NAS) although the paper didn’t give any examples of any of the items in the NAS. They also administered the ‘Big Five Inventory’ (which assesses five major personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). The study found that the hypotheses were supported (i.e., news addiction was positively correlated with neuroticism and negatively correlated with conscientiousness. Previous literature has consistently shown that there is relationship between personality traits and behavioural addiction. The findings of this study are very similar to those more widely in the general literature for both substance and behavioural addictions (which also show most addictions have a low correlation with conscientiousness and a high correlation with neuroticism). The authors also argued that:

“(The findings show that) self-control plays an active role [in] refraining from the instant pleasure of impulse that would hinder with daily functioning and attainment goals…[The] current study findings demonstrated that self-control acts as a mediating variable between conscientiousness, neuroticism and news addiction”.

They also reported that females had higher scores on neuroticism and conscientiousness and that males had higher scores on the News Addiction Scale. The authors also claimed that there was much similarity between social media addiction (although provided no evidence for this except to say that they were both examples of behavioural addiction).

There was no mention at all in the paper about how their participants accessed their news. I access most (but certainly not all) of my news via television and therefore if I was watching an abnormal amount of news on the television, this would more likely be a sub-type of television addiction or a sub-type of television binge-watcher (both of which have been reported in the psychological literature). If someone addictively accessed all their news online or via social media, this could perhaps come under more general umbrella terms such as ‘internet addiction’ or ‘social media addiction’.

However, things are further complicated by the fact that ‘news’ can be defined in a number of ways. In the study by Ishaq and colleagues, news was defined as a statement of specific information and facts and figures on any substantial event” but such a definition doesn’t take into account such things as political opinions and nor does it define what a ‘substantial event’ is. Given that this is the only study on news addiction that I am aware of, I’ll need a lot more research evidence before I am convinced that it really exists.

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

Further reading

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.

Ishaq, G., Rafique, R., & Asif, M. (2017). Personality traits and news addiction: Mediating role of self-control. Journal of Dow University of Health Sciences, 11(2), 31-53.

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., 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.

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. (2017). ‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching. Journal of Health Psychology, doi:1359105316643379

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.