Technology Addiction Claptrap

We recently ran a little study to see what happens when you prevent a small group of students from using their smartphone for 24 hours. Participants were instructed to place their smartphone in a secure evidence bag. So what happened?

Well not much really, they missed their smartphone. 

As part of this study, we also asked participants to complete the Smartphone 'Addiction' Inventory (SPAI). Interestingly, a few participants who dropped out later in the study had fractionally higher SPAI scores. This may indicate that smartphone ‘addicts’ were unable to fully participate in the study and so discontinued, thus affecting our findings. However, this is unlikely given that smartphone addiction scales do not align favourably with objective behaviour. It is worth noting that while this small number of participants were slightly more anxious at time 1 they were also on average, a bit happier.

It's increasingly difficult to know exactly what these 'addiction' assessments measure. They don't correlate with the types of behaviour you might expect from an addiction (e.g., rapid smartphone checking). It perhaps has more to do with how much someone enjoys or thinks about their smartphone. This alone does not support the notion of any addiction - a point that we could have pushed further in our discussion. For example, SPAI scores in our sample correlated very highly with smartphone craving at every time point, but not mood or anxiety. I suspect our sample was too small to detect these smaller effects, which have routinely appeared in larger samples

Of course, these scales could have nothing to do with technology at all, and a stronger replication of our study would include a second group to examine how giving up any valued personal possession might generate similar effects (or a lack of). But I think you can already guess what the outcome of such a study might be.

I remember being surprised to learn that those who argue for the existence of additive tendencies of smartphones haven’t attempted this sort of study before. In closing, my challenge for those who continue to argue for addictive tendencies associated with technology use is to start collecting (and maybe even sharing) data that will support its existence. 

A scale with a clinical sounding name plucked out the air won't suffice. The odd case study where a person has apparently been self referred to a clinic that has untried and untested methods is also not going to cut it. Experimental work without a control is also a long-standing problem.

If I wanted to make arguments about the impact of mobile technology on people and society more generally, I’d might start with a survey of general practitioners who are at the frontline of healthcare provision in the UK. Do they see negative issues in the population associated with specific technology use? 

I suspect if they do, then it will have more to do with a lack of physical activity and poor diet. The latter of which may well be a consequence of spending too much time in front of a screen. However, having been fortunate enough to work with a number of general practitioners on related research projects, I suspect they would confirm that social deprivation is the single biggest issue for people they see on a regular basis. Not technology 'addiction'.

We are all guilty sometimes of forgetting the bigger picture (myself included), but the above might serve as a reminder for what should be at the forefront of any new policy. 

One final thought. I am currently working my way through a variety of technology related literature as part of a forthcoming book (shameless plug). 

It's amazing to behold how much time psychological science has spent trying to convince itself that smartphones are damaging health, cognition and social communication. An identical web can be woven from research concerning video games and even the internet itself. The notion of 'addiction' is woven into almost every narrative when psychologists should really be referring to habitual behaviour, which of course sounds a lot less clinical or dangerous. 

I completely take the point that psychological science has a duty to understand, and where possible, predict or mitigate future problems that new technologies could bring. 

But a sense of balance is required. 

As a consequence, far less attention has been devoted to developing new methods following the widespread adoption of such technology. Meanwhile, many other fields (e.g., medicine and computer science) are methodologically moving out of sight.

Social psychology also has offer much more when it comes to discussions around issues of ethics and morality regarding new and future technologies, but this will become increasingly difficult unless the discipline positively engages with new technology in the first place. 

Ironically, when new technology or methods are used in way that benefits research directly, we often find that any effects on health and social interaction largely vanish.   


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