Here is a common scene on every college campus, including the campus I teach at, Texas Tech University:
Students briskly move from place to place on their way to a variety of destinations: the next class, the bookstore, their dorms, to find food, or to the gym. At certain times, especially between classes, the campus is so overwhelmed by pedestrian traffic it looks like a wave of students crashing upon the educational shoreline. To be perfectly honest, I marvel at the fact that students can actually find their way across campus in today’s world of smartphones. I say this because, most of the time, they navigate this entire journey with earbuds securely planted, and their eyes looking down fixed on their smartphone screens. Some even do this with a hoodie covering most of their head and partly covering their faces.
When I am driving my car during one of these student waves, I am extra careful because students often walk in front of my car without even knowing I am there. I don’t mean to sound old-fashioned or intend to give a “get off my lawn” type of dissertation here. However, the other day, after avoiding what could have been a tragic collision with a student and my car, I began to wonder how many of them are “addicted” to their cell phones. This got me fixated on the very nature of smartphone “addiction”, and how we are approaching the proliferation of devices, and our dependency on them, in our society at large.
The potential for addiction to smartphones
According to the PEW Research Center,1 64% of Americans adults use smartphones. This number is even higher when you look at the 18-24 age group often called emerging adults. As is well recognized, smartphones are utilized not only for phone calls and texts but are often utilized to access the internet with the variety of activities and applications available. Thus, in today’s world, smartphones are used in a variety of different ways, and for a variety of different purposes.
Several studies have examined the potential of cell phone use becoming addictive. In a study of 164 college students,2 researchers investigated what kinds of smartphone activities were connected with cell phone addiction. They also investigated what differences exist, if any, between men and women regarding time spent on the phone, activities, and potential addiction. Study findings show significant differences between emerging adult men and women. For example,
“women reported spending an average of 600 minutes on a cell phone every day compared to 459 for males (p. 259).”
Texts, emails, and social media were the top three time consumers across participants. The researchers found that social media sites such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook were associated with higher scores on the addiction instrument used. This was particularly true for women. For men, emails, calls, and texts were a higher predictor of cell phone addiction.
Motivations for smartphone dependency and addiction
The motivation for cell phone use and possible addiction also differed between men and women. Women were more socially motivated versus more “utilitarian” or practical motivations for men. Overall, the desire to connect with others was a primary motivator for all participants and reveals an important research question for the future. Namely, what motivates us to spend so much time on our smartphones? Interestingly, the researchers noted that “reading the Bible on one’s cell phone” and “Twitter” reduced the probability of cell phone addiction.2
It is likely that the journey to problematic cell phone use begins in early adolescence. Dr. Mark D. Griffiths, a leading expert in this area, conducted a large-scale study of 1,900 students; high school and college.3 Griffiths and colleagues found that problematic use was reported by 2.8% of students. He also rightly points out that “some people may confuse habitual use of such technology as an addictive behavior (when in reality it may not be)” (p. 77).
Defining criteria for smartphone addiction
Distinguishing between significant use and addiction is best assessed through the presence of negative consequences. Common negative consequences of addiction can include factors from various aspects of our life including social, relational, financial, legal, emotional, and physical. It is easy to see how cell phone addiction could impact a person in most of these areas. What is not as easy to determine or define is how cell phone addiction could impact someone legally or physically.
However, an addiction to cell phone use often is associated with other psychological problems and/or behaviors. For example, a review of the literature discovers that problematic cell phone use is often associated with poor quality of sleep and the number of hours of sleep. Sleep deprivation can significantly impact our physical and emotional health. Not surprisingly, alcohol and drug use, as well as other co-occurring psychiatric illness, are correlated with problematic cell phone use.4 Alcohol and drug use increases the probability of running into legal problems. These factors point to cell phone addiction most likely being part of a multitude of behaviors related to those susceptible to addiction generally.
In order to distinguish cell phone addiction from significant use, Griffiths3 developed a series of statements in an effort to create a self-assessment review that can be used by any individual. Answering “yes” to six or more of these statements is symptomatic of a cell phone or smartphone problem, and could point to an addiction issue. Listed below are the questions:
- “My mobile phone is the most important thing in my life”
- “Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone”
- “My mobile phone use often gets in the way of other important things I should be doing (working, education, etc.)”
- “I spend more time on my mobile phone than almost any other activity”
- “I use my mobile phone as a way of changing my mood”
- “Over time, I have increased the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone during the day”
- “If I am unable to use my mobile phone, I feel moody and irritable”
- “I often have strong urges to use my mobile phone”
- “If I cut down the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone, and then start using it again, I always end up spending as much time on my mobile phone as I did before”
- “I have lied to other people about how much I use my mobile phone” (p. 77)
Certainly, significant smartphone use can become problematic if it takes us away from important activities and relationships. Given the ubiquitous nature of smartphones in business and personal life though, this line of distinction is difficult to discern. For some, cell phone addiction may actually be a real problem needing intervention. If you found yourself answering “yes” to a number of Dr. Griffith’s questions, please know that you are not alone in this issue. You can and should reach out for help.
- PEW Research Center http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/
- Roberts, J.A., Yaha, L.H.P., & Manolis, C. (2014). The invisible addiction: Cell phone activities and addiction among male and female college students. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(4), 254-265.
- Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health 31(3), 76-78.
- Gutierrez, J.D., de Fonseca, F.R., & Rubio, G. (2016). Cell-Phone Addiction: A Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, (7).