German Study Links Smartphones to Addictive Behaviour

German Study Links Smartphones to Addictive Behaviour

We all know the Pavlovian joy associated with receiving a text message; the Trumpian relish in counting the likes a post on social media has garnered, the tantric anticipation that comes from reading the words: “[insert love interest’s name] is typing…” Scientists have been telling us for years that these stimuli increase our dopamine (happiness hormone) levels and make us feel really good. Perhaps too good. A new study by Nadine and Christian Wolf from the Saarland university clinic in Homburg, Germany, found that these sensations may be linked to addiction.

Wolf and Wolf base the findings on an interaction with one of their patients, a man who goes by the pseudonym Mr B. When he arrived at the clinic, the 38 year-old reported having had a tendency towards depression in the past. Mr B had been using his smartphone to compulsively check up on his girlfriend, an activity which he had spent at least four hours a day doing. Because he could see when she was online and when she had received a message, any delay in responding to his attempts to draw her into a small-talk chat would inflame his jealousy. The behaviour got so out of hand so that eventually intense feelings of “sadness, restlessness and a lack of concentration” led him to check himself in to the clinic.

Whether Mr B’s behaviour can officially be classified as “addictive” is still being debated. Other than ‘gambling disorder’, ‘Internet gaming disorder’ is currently the only non-substance-related condition to be termed an addictive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Psychologists like Wolf and Wolf think smartphones will soon have to be included in that list though. According to the American Psychological Association “addiction is a condition in which the body must have a drug to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms;” a condition which obsessive smartphone users seem to satisfy.

There is reluctance to make smartphone addiction an official disorder because of the dearth of data currently available. But a spate of new studies suggests the tide could be turning. In 2003 a research group in Taiwan developed a Smartphone Addiction Inventory (SPAI) which identified 27 criteria for addiction based on the internet addiction scale, though this inventory has yet to be validated internationally. The first study on a European cohort was carried out in Switzerland in 2015. It investigated smartphone use among 1,519 students from 127 Swiss vocational schools. Smartphone addiction was found in 16.9 percent of the students. The findings also indicated that addiction was more prevalent in young adolescents (15–16 years) compared with young adults (19 years and older). Many more such studies are needed to give smartphone addiction disorder status.

In the meantime app use is an increasingly popular research topic among clinical psychologists. In February 2016 a PubMed search for the word “smartphone” harvested 2,053 hits in the scientific literature. Wolf and Wolf welcome this trend as they believe the symptoms exhibited by Mr B are not isolated and that they point to a growing trend in the dysfunctional behaviour associated with the handheld devices. Other studies have found that frequent smartphone use can lead to poor academic performance, higher anxiety levels, sleep disorders, attention deficit disorders and depression.

On a physiological level smartphone use has even been linked to problems like short-sightedness, precipitated by intense concentration on small, close-by screens. In South Korea, which has the highest smartphone penetration in the world, short-sightedness has reached 90 percent among young people.

It seems inevitable that the designation “smartphone addiction” will not only soon become codified in psychologists’ lexicons but that the phenomenon will be a common feature of our time. Unlike gambling or even internet use on a desktop computer, smartphones are not spatially limited. It is possible to have the “drug” with you all the time, thus exponentially increasing its potential to take over your life.


T L Andrews


TL Andrews is a multi-media journalist based in Berlin. He produces features for radio, television and print outlets with a focus on German and European issues.

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