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Is There a Pandemic of Smartphone Addiction?

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I love fear-mongering. I feel it is one of the surest indications that whatever you’re reading has little basis in science (or fact), and a lot of basis in opinion. So for me, fear-mongering acts as a quick but fairly accurate filter when reading stuff online; I can stop reading once I see the article is just another attempt to garner a reaction, rather than have a nuanced conversation.

I hear professionals expounding their doom-and-gloom scenarios all the time in the arena of mental health. But nowhere is it louder than when expert suggest that technology is “addictive.” It’s a tired old refrain we can trace back to video games in the 1970s — and one that can be readily shown to be demonstrably false.

There is no digital drug. There is no “pandemic” of technology or smartphone addiction. There are only pundits who go around proclaiming there is, often with little or no scientific backing.

Don Grant recently wrote an article entitled, The Digital Drug for a professional newsletter for the Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Citing no research, he compares a smartphone to a “nefarious drug” that creates an “insatiable craving” that we “voraciously covet.” He must realize he’s a bit over-the-top with his descriptions, since he writes:

A synthetic “drug” of pandemic global proportions has now emerged as potentially the most dangerously addictive threat across all population demographics. […] In the relatively alacritous span of time since its original release for public consumption, this FDA-approved drug has forever altered our very way of life. […]

Of course, comparing the smartphone to a drug may appear dramatic and even absurd. When examining the relationship between addicts and their drug of choice against that of users and their smartphone, however, the similarities seem almost indistinguishable.

They seem almost indistinguishable because the writer is apparently someone who works with a lot of substance abusers.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That is to say that if you only have one tool available to you, you’ll try and use that tool no matter whether it’s appropriate for the task or not. This can be generalized to our coping strategies in dealing with stress in our lives, how we handle relationship disagreements, etc. Therapists help teach people to expand their toolbox and find new ways of coping and behaving that work better and are more effective.

So it’s not surprising to read that a therapist who has been “working with literally thousands of substance abusers” sees people who use a device to socialize and keep in touch with their friends and family as being “addicted” to that device. Focusing solely on the behavior regarding an object — regardless of whether it generally results in pro-social activities, such as socializing, learning, etc. versus anti-social activities — could readily blind one to the reality of its use.

The Facts About Smartphone Addiction

It’s time to go through some of the facts — not hyperbole — of so-called “smartphone addiction.” While behavioral addictions are used throughout the media and by many professionals, they remain a controversial area of study. Researchers still disagree over whether it’s appropriate to use the term “addiction” to describe behavioral compulsions or problems. The DSM-5 — the diagnostic manual for mental disorders — still lists only a single behavioral compulsion in this category — compulsive gambling. There is no other “behavioral addiction” that can technically be diagnosed today (not even “smartphone addiction”).

I tend to think that the Pandora’s box of “technology addiction” was opened in 1996 with the introduction of the concept of “Internet addiction.”1 However, we can trace societal concern about “overuse” of new technology dating back to the television in the 1960s and video games in the 1970s.2

We now know that people do not become “addicted” to television (although violent content on TV can impact very young children). We also now know that people do not become “addicted” to video games, either, despite some people choosing to spend countless hours playing them.

If Your Measures are Flawed, So Are Your Data

Here in 2015, we are at the very early stages of rigorous research looking into so-called “smartphone addiction.” For instance, one of the most recent research studies (Van Deursen et al., 2015) looked at habitual versus addicted-behavior smartphone use. Yet the study is weakened by its reliance on measures developed (and only cursorily tested) exclusively for the study.

The addiction measure was adopted from one created for mobile phone (not smartphone) use back in 2005 that includes items such as “I feel lost without my mobile phone” (well, it’s a valuable tool, so who wouldn’t?), “I have used my mobile phone to make myself feel better when I was feeling down” (how is this an indication of addictive behavior?), and “I find it difficult to switch off/silence my mobile phone” (who turns off their smartphone any more?). The “habitual” measure was simply a re-purposed habitual Internet use scale, but used as a direct comparison with the “addiction” scale (despite being only 5 items long, versus the 26-item addiction scale)

When your study is based upon poor measurement of a thing with a scale that wasn’t independently tested and shown to be reliable and robust on its own, then you start your study off with some serious methodological problems. This is a core problem at the root of much of the research in this area of “technology addiction.” Some researchers in this area seem to be going into their study with preconceived notions about what the data will show, then self-create (or haphazardly adopt) measures that will help provide the data necessary to show their hypotheses to be true.

Is There a Pandemic of Smartphone Addiction?

Footnotes:

  1. Nearly two decades later and “Internet addiction” remains an unrecognized disorder because researchers and data cannot agree on a definition that isn’t a moving target. []
  2. Full disclosure: I was an “over user” of both TV and video games in my youth. []


John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Is There a Pandemic of Smartphone Addiction?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 17, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/is-there-a-pandemic-of-smartphone-addiction/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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