The smartphone addiction started with the iPhone

Interview: Can the smartphone become a drug?

Halyna Kubiv

“Smombie” was chosen as the youth word of the year in 2015, and the smartphone is also being used more and more often in other ways.

EnlargeSmartphone at night

In September 2018, Apple introduced the new "Screen Time" function with iOS 12. This should help you to record the use of individual apps and to limit them if you wish. However, there is much more to this simple description. Do we have to worry about the iPhone replacing real life? To this end, we worked with the Professor of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University, Prof. Christian spoke on Monday.

Macwelt: We're open Your website of the University of Ulm read that you deal with psychoinformatics. What is that?

C.M .: This is a new interdisciplinary research area between psychology and computer science, in which, among other things, attempts are made to draw conclusions about psychological variables such as personality from the traces of daily human-smartphone interaction.

Macwelt: So basically: "Show me which apps you have downloaded and I can then find out who you are"?

C.M .: Yes, exactly. We try to use information such as “length of WhatsApp usage” or “number of calls per day” on the smartphone to draw conclusions about personal characteristics. And that works relatively well at group level.

Macwelt: You have probably noticed that Apple introduced a feature like "Screen Time" together with iOS 12 in September. Have you dealt with this?

C.M .: I have already used this function myself and see something in it that we offered many years ago in a similar form for Android phones: a digital scale. The user receives feedback on how much time he has spent with which functions of the smartphone in the last week. In addition, the user can find out how much time he has spent on the smartphone in total.

Macwelt: Keyword “digital scales”. What insights should the tool deliver to the user? Outside of his usage times of any app or something similar?

C.M .: First of all, I believe that the main benefit of this application is to give me insight into how many hours of my everyday life are lost through smartphone use. Our work has shown that a large part of smartphone use is spent on social media applications, among other things. Another issue that needs to be addressed, especially when there is excessive smartphone use, is related to the fragmentation of everyday life. Many people interrupt their everyday life through the smartphone so often that the units between the smartphone units have become too short to be productive.

Macwelt: Do you have any practical tips for users? Well, I found out, for example, that I activate my smartphone 20 times a day - that is of course a gross understatement - and I use the smartphone three hours a day. I now know these numbers, what should I do next?

C.M .: If I want to get such a time information first, the "Screen Time" application actually offers me good assistance. Incidentally, this app also shows me in percent how my smartphone usage has changed compared to the previous week. In order to be successful in reducing their own smartphone consumption, every user must question some aspects of their own digital life, because smartphone use is also automatic in many ways. That said, over many years we've developed a habit here that is difficult to unlearn. As a result, the smartphone is reflexively picked up in many areas and we are often no longer aware of how often this happens.
My tip would be - and we have also investigated this - to wear a classic watch. Many who have a smartphone no longer have a wristwatch and / or an alarm clock in their bedroom. I believe that using these classic timers can reduce smartphone usage. Everyone knows it: I look at the time on the wristwatch, then I don't have to pull the smartphone out of my pocket. On the other hand, if you use your smartphone as a watch, you often don't stop at “just” looking at the time. Instead, you discover a message on WhatsApp and immerse yourself in the device for 20 minutes. Finally I plugged it back in and still don't know the time!

Using an alarm clock in the bedroom, on the other hand, is important so as not to be tempted to do anything else with the smartphone in bed - except set the alarm time. Otherwise I will surf the Internet again for a while and ultimately come to rest much too late. The alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning anyway and the length of sleep has suffered.

Macwelt: Are there any figures on how much smartphone is too much? How much use per day would you recommend or how many activations are normal?

C.M .: Naturally, that is very difficult to formulate, because we have to take a very careful look at why someone has been using the phone for so long. If smartphone use is a central part of a person's job, that must of course be taken into account. In addition, it should be noted that the duration of daily smartphone use is not necessarily a good predictor of whether a person is really showing problem behavior. The length of use has something to do with it, but on its own, such a number is not meaningful. The term “smartphone addiction”, which is often used, has not yet found official recognition as an independent diagnosis in important manuals such as ICD-11, so that some further research is necessary to clarify this question.

In principle, however, science is already trying to transfer common symptoms from addiction research to this new possible area of ​​behavioral addiction. These include symptoms like constant mental preoccupation with my smartphone or social media, even though I'm not holding the device in my hand at the moment. My thoughts revolve around the device all the time. In addition: If I cannot use the device, I might get anxious or nervous ? Maybe are mild Withdrawal symptoms to observe. Loss of control over your own use also plays a big role. The “Fear of Missing out” (FoMO for short) construct also contributes to this. It's about the fear of missing something on your social network.

Regardless of whether “smartphone addiction” will one day find recognition in extreme cases, it is important to point out that we as scientists do not want to pathologize everyday actions. Therefore, significant impairments in everyday life due to your own smartphone use must also be observed in any case. The skill Problems in the interpersonal area be just like Loss of productivity at work due to the fragmentation of everyday life.

Macwelt: Yes, but these interruptions are not only caused by the smartphone. I mainly work on a laptop myself, there are significantly more notifications because all of my business accounts are activated. Isn't the smartphone as a medium rashly declared pathological?

C.M .: The truth lies somewhere in between: Many people have their smartphones on their desks and then have to deal with the many interruptions caused by incoming emails on the desktop. We then experience interruptions from all sides. You may be familiar with the following situation: You are currently working on a Word article and at the same time you left your e-mail box open in the background. The operating system will now show you that new messages have just arrived. That is poison for a flow experience, i.e. concentrated and productive work. Our brain cannot help but react briefly to these incoming signals. When all the acoustic and visual stimuli come in via the smartphone, everyday life becomes even more fragmented. Only one thing helps - turn off your smartphone and also close your e-mail inbox. Then I can focus on writing the article.

Macwelt: Up Statista I found an evaluation of social media usage in Germany from 2016. According to this, just under 33 percent of users are active on Facebook, compared to only 14 percent on YouTube. What rewards do these users get, they don't post anything and can't hope for likes and redirects?

C.M .: The motifs are very different depending on the type of use. Some social media users simply want to be entertained or get information. Many are driven by curiosity to find out what is happening in their own circle of friends. In principle, problem behavior seems to arise when using social media when particularly lonely people are confronted with the often embellished worlds of other users. This can lead to envy and negative affect through social comparison. Mind you, these problems do not necessarily arise with all users, but especially with those who are susceptible to them. The meadow then seems to be always greener elsewhere.

Macwelt: Who are these users who are particularly susceptible to it? Are there defined social groups with an increased risk?

C.M .: We know from personality psychology that there are certain personal characteristics that may predispose to excessive social media use in particular. This certainly includes a low level of self-control. These are people who are not very conscientious and have little willpower. With regard to the susceptibility to the social comparison just mentioned, groups of people may be particularly susceptible to those whose personality structure is more prone to neuroticism.

Macwelt: We've been talking about social media for some time now, but we started with smartphones. Are the two concepts not mixed up or even confused?

C.M .: We have just carried out a study that shows that when people fill out a questionnaire about “smartphone addiction”, they seem to think in particular of excessive social media use, especially messenger use. Excessive messenger use correlated very highly with “smartphone addiction” in our data. In this respect, the smartphone, messenger and social media applications go hand in hand.

Macwelt: You said that smartphone addiction is not a recognized diagnosis. But if a user realizes that excessive smartphone use has affected their relationships with others, what can they do?

C. M .: First of all, it is about better structuring everyday life, especially in terms of time. The classic timers already mentioned, such as wristwatches or alarm clocks, help. The structured handling of e-mails also helps. I can work on not always answering everything immediately, but on making it more structured. It could look like this: I mostly reply to my e-mails at 9 a.m. and then again at 3 p.m. In between there is enough space to concentrate on something else without being interrupted all the time. I would also advocate turning off all acoustic and visual signals from WhatsApp and Co. Personally, I do not receive notifications when I receive the WhatsApp messages. This has the advantage that I am not constantly interrupted by the smartphone. I tend to check it out once or twice a day to see if any news has come in. However, I have made an exception: my wife's messages are delivered immediately and I am notified of them. That's the nice thing - we can make the appropriate settings in the apps.

Macwelt: You mentioned that smartphone addiction is not a recognized diagnosis. Why?

C.M .: This is mainly due to the fact that the smartphone has not been around for that long. Almost twelve years after the introduction of the iPhone, the smartphone is still a relatively new phenomenon, and there are far too few studies that have dealt with this complex of topics. As long as we do not know exactly what we are dealing with here, we have to be careful not to rashly pathologize the everyday actions of millions, even billions of people.

Macwelt: We have now spent half an hour talking about users and their relationships with smartphones and social media. Don't you also see manufacturers as having an obligation here?

C.M .: I am absolutely in favor of rethinking the payment models for some applications from Silicon Valley; the long dwell times on some apps are a consequence of the payment model. In many cases, installing an app does not initially cost any money. But it has become established that we pay with our data. As a result, several tech companies design their applications in such a way that they are more and more "addicting". For the tech company, it is good if I spend as much time as possible on the applications. More time also means that I feed the application with more and more of my own data. As a result, the companies know the users better and can deliver tailor-made advertising, which then leads to increased purchase rates, for example. In my opinion, it is better to pay a small amount such as 1.99 euros per month for a service if I can then be sure that my data is not being used for purposes other than intended.

Macwelt: We are already faced with a dilemma: As soon as we write a message that something is going to be more expensive, a little shit storm is brewing, although this payment could possibly be justified.

C.M .: First of all, it is very important to educate people about the mechanisms presented here. An interview like this can also help here. Incidentally, after the data scandals this year, many people are fed up with paying with their own data. I know from conversations with many people that the willingness to pay a fair amount for a service online increases when they know the data is secure, cannot be resold, and cannot be used against you.

Macwelt: Maybe a final word from you?

C.M .: In an interview like this, it is important for me to emphasize that I am not a technology-hostile person. I like to use different technologies in my everyday life in order to work successfully. Therefore, the smartphone or any other technology is not necessarily good or bad per se. In order to arrive at a correct technology impact assessment, we always have to consider how and in which context technology is used.

Macwelt: Prof. Dr. Monday, thank you for this interview.

If you want to assess your own behavior with your smartphone, you can take part in the survey on the website of the University of Ulm.