In the flow

The psychology of smartphone addiction

Interview by Eric Collins

Professor Matthew Lee is Vice President (Development and External Relations) and Chair Professor of Information Systems & E-Commerce at CityU. He is the highestcited researcher at the College of Business and the author of 4 out of the 5 most highly cited research papers ever published by CB’s faculty members. Professor Lee has several decades of research experience in IT based innovation adoption, knowledge management, electronic commerce, and online social networks. Here he discusses the nature of addiction, why we can’t put our smartphones down, and whether we should be concerned about the allure of virtual reality.

A recent survey finds that nearly one-in-three young people in China are severely phoneaddicted. How serious is the issue?

There are different conceptions about the word addiction, but there is certainly plenty of evidence of increasing dependence and reliance on the smartphone. Some people may regard it as addiction. Certainly, it is an increasing trend for all age groups. But it is a misnomer to say that we are addicted to the smartphone. It’s just a device through which we can instantly access the apps. The convenience and concentration of everything on one platform helps accentuate the behavioural dependency.

Your research identifies “flow” as a crucial experience for smartphone users. What is this?

Online flow is quite similar to “being in the flow” doing something in everyday life. It is a psychological state of mindfulness coupled with joy. When you are in this psychological state you tend to want to stay in it. You are not aware of how the time flies.

Is this the same as addiction?

Addiction is a word that has been used very loosely. Now there is a more scientific consensus on the meaning of addiction. In the substance addiction domain, it is clear that you are drug-addicted because of biological dependence. But in the case of smartphones we are talking about behavioural addiction. Here there is a fine line. My wife always says I am addicted to work, but this is not an absolute measure.

Where should we draw the line?

The crux of behavioural addiction is that you repeat behaviour to the extent that it has a harmful effect on yourself, and you realise that but are not able to change. But if you really like doing something such as work, and there is no harm, well why not? You are not addicted, you are just passionate about doing something. Addiction is a relative measure and we have to assess whether the consequences are beneficial or harmful.

How do you assess the effect of social networking?

Social networking has been with us for a long time, well before we had the internet. In the old days you would go to Saturday gatherings in the Bingo hall. People have always been attracted to activity where there is social bonding and the possibility of a kind of gratification. You might even win at Bingo!

Online amplifies the effect tremendously, creating environment in which it is much easier to engage. In the old days it was computer forums. Now with mobile phones we can do things out of impulse with increased frequency of gratification and reward.

Self-control seems to vary radically between people.

We are very interesting psychological animals. Some of us will have strong enough behavioural control and are capable of modifying our behaviour. We will tone down the frequency of use. You may still be a highlevel user, it makes you happy, helps you get work done more quickly, but the harmful effects are avoided. That is not addiction. But there are other people who do not have such a strong self-regulatory power, and even though they are aware of the problem, they will continue and suffer.

How is “flow” used to increase purchase intention in smartphone advertisements?

It’s still early days and many advertising strategies are not successful. Pop-up advertisements really disrupt your online flow. Smarter advertising in online shops will do the job very naturally, by engaging you, allowing you to reach a state of flow, and “naturally” proffering the final purchase button. Amazon makes it very easy – just one button. The user interface is designed in such a way as to quickly maintain a strong flow, so that customer will complete the purchase before the flow is disrupted.

Online flow is quite similar to “being in the flow” doing something in everyday life.

“Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone, where everything flows so effortlessly and you are executing automatically. You don’t need to think too much. It’s quite an awesome feeling that we all try to reach and stay in.”

Novak Djokovic,
15-time tennis
Grand Slam champion

"We are very interesting psychological animals"

So, anything that disrupts the flow is annoying?

Yes, so online newspapers will at first give free access. You get used to the service, you form a habit, you easily reach a state of flow on the website, and then a pop-up comes along, “Please subscribe”. Well that is a trigger point. Sometimes the customer will get irritated. At other times because the material is good and you don’t want the flow to be disrupted, you think “OK, subscribe”. After all it is usually cheap, especially in the beginning.

France has banned smartphones from schools for pupils up to the age of 15. What is your view?

Smartphones, iPads and computers are very useful and powerful devices. These tools can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes. You just have to adjust, regulate and structure your learning processes and environment so that they are used positively to benefit learning. I think it is really counter-productive to ban them.

But don’t smartphones undermine teachers’ control in the classroom?

I think teachers need to take advantage of the possibilities and change the way they run classes. When I teach a class, I require my students to bring a smartphone because part of the class is designed to be interactive and (with a big class) that can only be achieved when they have a device that can simultaneously connect to the apps and the platform. Then I can interact with everyone conveniently, especially in larger classes. A teacher can spend a couple of minutes introducing a concept, raising a point, and then start to put in some angles for students to do their own thinking, and when they have ideas they can share with the whole class instantly without waiting for their turn to speak. Then we can all see the on-going discussion and ideas. That enables us to do things that could not have happened pedagogically before. So quite the contrary, I see that smartphones benefit teaching and learning greatly.

What is the effect of new laws such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation?

We are in an interesting time because national and supra-national governing bodies want to enhance competitiveness, but at the same time they know full well that regulations are a cost and will slow down development in this sector. It’s hard to draw a balance, but in Europe the culture tends to emphasise the protection of the individual, and therefore you see quite strong regulations. I think that’s very good from an individual citizen’s perspective. Even companies that trade with the EU have to comply with these regulations.

How about the situation in Hong Kong?

If we look at the recent Cathay Pacific data loss, there was no disclosure until six or seven months after the incident. In the current European regulatory environment that would have resulted in heavy fines. Regulations encourage companies to invest more heavily in protection. One of the problems is that technology moves very quickly and governments’ understanding lags behind, so they tend to “wait and see”.

Are social networking companies beginning to follow more enlightened policies?

Facebook, Tencent and others are becoming very big and with that comes a sense of social responsibility. They cannot just focus on increasing usage and profitability. They have become such significant players in society that the community expects them to meet other obligations. Self-regulation also has a commercial side, because otherwise they may be subject to regulation “from above”, which may be even tougher. So, it is in their own best interests to be seen to be doing things proactively that mitigate potential user harm.

"I go online because we go online"

What is the situation in China?

Tencent has taken voluntary measures to help combat online game addiction which is an important social issue in mainland China where smartphone usage is very high. Sometimes you cannot look at behavioural phenomena in isolation. We see newspaper headlines such as “Children who spend more time on their phone tend to be unhappy”. But it could be the other way round. The chain of causal effect is complicated. Some studies suggest that smartphone use is a form of comfort regulation. People may be unhappy in other aspects of their life and want to escape. Imagine a rural area with few avenues of escape. You can’t go swimming every day. There aren’t so many cinemas around. All you have is the phone.

Is addiction a social phenomenon?

We did some empirical research as to why people get addicted, and found that the feeling of “social belonging” is very important. Social identity – “This is my generation”. You can’t just stop one person because we are talking about the “we” not just the “I”. “I go online because we go online.” “We play this game because it is what we do.” And there are also gender differences. For boys, smartphones are more about games, and multi-party interactive games are popular. The social part is very important as well as the individual gratification part.

Is the smartphone causing us to disconnect from the natural world?

We are moving in that direction. The perceived reality that we are living in is transforming from physical to virtual reality. In the old days you lived in a cave. Now you have movies, and multimedia. These send signals to your brain, then you have an interpretation, and that forms your reality. Nowadays, we spend more time living in this virtual reality and the physical reality is becoming less and less important to our lives. That’s the behavioural pattern. I can just put on the goggles. No need to go to the park any longer.

But doesn’t that make you feel slightly sad?

I am concerned but I am not sure it is destructive. People’s value systems have changed tremendously throughout history. Core values are changing, and the switch to the virtual environment may not necessarily be bad. What constitutes acceptable behaviour is cultural, and that is formed of habit. In day-to-day interactions we have certain norms of politeness, of moderation. But in the virtual world you will immediately see some deviations. When you are hidden behind a screen you may become another animal. When you reflect on it, you may be behaving outside of the established norms. Some of this new learned behaviour is very irresponsible, but with others you have to ask is it really that bad?

What future research foci interest you in this area?

I will still be looking at the behavioural consequences of interactions between humans and technology. In the old days it was relatively simple, and we would look at how the introduction of a new technology would affect users’ behaviour. Now it is becoming more interactive and complex. The technology is shaped by the way we use it. AI will learn on the job. We are talking about how interactions will develop between “intelligent” agents, which may be robots or humans. Will we one day see a symbiosis? So, studying AI robots’ behaviour in the future will be very interesting to me.

Professor Matthew Lee
Chair Professor
Department of Information Systems