The Western world has seen a significant increase in mobile technology use in the last decade. In 2016, the communications regulator Ofcom [1
] referred to the UK as a “smartphone society”; 93% of the population own a smartphone, and users spend more time accessing the Internet via a phone than through other devices, such as laptops and desktop-computers. These recent trends suggest mobiles and the Internet have become intimately intertwined to enable “on-the-go” access to a range of facilities, including web-browsing, communication, shopping, banking, and gaming [1
Recent research suggests a number of problems can result from smartphone overuse, including addiction-like symptoms and feelings of dependence [2
], dangerous use, particularly whilst driving [4
], and forbidden or prohibited use in areas such as libraries, classrooms, or public transport [6
]. Accumulating evidence also connects excessive mobile phone use with increasing psychopathological symptoms, such as those related to depression and anxiety [7
]. In other words, research suggests excessive mobile phone use can result from psychopathology and constitute a dysfunctional strategy to cope with adverse emotions. Similarly, King et al. [8
] suggested that mobile phone checking can constitute a safety behaviour in anxious individuals. Internet-enabled devices may encourage checking behaviours by hosting a range of applications (or apps) with regular updates and notifications. Thus, mobile Internet use may increase habitual checking behaviours, which may contribute to developing and maintaining symptoms of psychopathology, such as addictive use [9
]. Consequently, a growing number of studies are conducted to determine whether smartphone overuse constitutes a genuine addictive disorder (e.g., [10
]), which is in line with the inclusion of a behavioural addiction category in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; [11
]). Yet, to date, the evidence supporting problematic smartphone use as an addictive disorder is scarce, and the studies emphasizing behavioural and neurobiological similarities between problematic smartphone use and other types of recognised addictive disorders are limited [12
1.1. Gaining a Contemporary View of Smartphone Behaviours
Past research on problematic mobile phone and addictive smartphone behaviours employed quantitative methodologies to examine negative consequences associated with smartphone use. Various ways of measuring problematic smartphone use have been proposed considering different criteria and sources, including empirical evidence [13
], substance abuse criteria [4
], pathological gambling criteria [19
], reviews of the relevant literature [2
], or Internet addiction criteria [23
]. When it comes to determining when smartphone use becomes problematic, it is important to be aware that time spent using these devices is not a sufficient indicator. For instance, it has been found that time spent socialising on mobile apps left users with positive mood [25
]. Thus, the types of smartphone interactions appear to have varying impacts on user wellbeing. However, merely reading, removing, and scrolling through messages leaves users with negative emotions [25
]. In addition to utilising a quantitative research approach, an experiential perspective based on users’ own perceptions and understanding of their smartphone use may offer significant insights into what constitutes problematic smartphone use and how it is experienced on an individual level. User perceptions of smartphones can help to define what aspects of this technology are beneficial or problematic.
However, experiential evidence of mobile devices is outdated. Surveys capturing smartphone perspectives have failed to keep up with the speed of technological advancement and often do not reflect the full range of behaviours possible on modern smartphones [25
]. Relatively recent smartphone interactions, particularly those which are supported by ‘on-the -go’ Internet technology, have not been accounted for and may influence problematic smartphone experiences. An experiential perspective based on users’ own perceptions and understanding of their smartphone use may offer significant insights into what constitutes problematic use and how it is experienced on an individual level. The present research aims to fill this gap in knowledge by using a mixed methods convergent design incorporating a qualitative exploration of perspectives on contemporary smartphone use.
1.2. Existing Measures of Problematic Smartphone Use
A theory of problematic mobile phone use [12
] suggests that there are three pathways which may result in negative and pathological smartphone behaviours, namely (i) the excessive reassurance pathway, (ii) the impulsive-antisocial pathway, and (iii) an extraversion pathway. These pathways suggest that personality, psychopathological symptoms, and frequency of smartphone use can have particular problematic consequences. The Problematic Mobile Phone Use Questionnaire (PMPU-Q) [2
] was developed to assess various facets of problematic mobile phone use. The original questionnaire included four subscales: (1) prohibited use; (2) dangerous use; (3) dependent use, and (4) financial problems resulting from use.
Contemporary publications and theoretical reflections on problematic smartphone use take different perspectives relative to Billieux et al.’s proposed model [12
]. For instance, financial implications may no longer be considered a contemporary problematic use of smartphones. Recent evidence links the evolution of mobile phones to smart technology with many benefits; social applications such as WhatsApp and Skype can now facilitate communication with little cost to the user, and apps are available, which support financial and banking activities [26
]. In addition, the US Department of Transportation reported smartphone technology as a key distractor which can deflect the attention of pedestrians and drivers, leading to potential collisions [28
]. Considering this, previous survey measures of problematic behaviours excluding such contemporary activities may only partially record problematic experiences. Given the rapid developments in mobile technologies, changes of use patterns and possible problematic and addictive use, the aim of the present study was to test and validate an updated contemporary version of the original PMPU-Q using a rigorous and innovative convergent parallel design. In order to investigate the efficacy of the existing measure of these phenomena, a psychometric survey was included in this study which featured the PMPU-Q and validated measures of smartphone affect.
The present study aimed to investigate and validate an updated contemporary version of the original PMPU-Q, the PMPU-Q-R, using a rigorous and innovative convergent design. The PMPU-Q-R was tested to determine how many factors emerged from the scale, and how this corresponded with the theoretical underpinnings of the original PMPU-Q subscales [2
]. Construct validity of the PMPU-Q-R items was investigated, alongside existing contemporary measures of problematic smartphone behaviours, and psychopathology. The quantitative data inquiry using an EFA revealed the pattern structure did not correspond to the expected and predefined structure of the PMPU-Q. Whilst the dependence factor was explained well by the data, a second factor was made up by a combination of items of the prohibited and dangerous subscales, suggesting the factor labels of ‘prohibited’ and ‘dangerous’ smartphone use could not be applied to the items within the scale for this sample. An explanation for this may be the rapid expansion and development of mobile technology since the development of the original PMPU-Q [2
], which may have contributed to the results. Smartphone functionality has significantly increased in this time period, including the availability of high-quality satellite navigation and location-based augmented reality games (e.g., Pokémon-GO
), changing the possible risks related to engaging in smartphone activities.
An increase in dependence-related items strongly correlated with increased self-reported smartphone addiction symptoms (measured via items considering excessive smartphone use as addictive disorder), and moderately correlated with social media addiction symptoms. This provides support for the construct validity of the dependence subscale. Previous research [31
] has suggested that addictive smartphone use may be part of social media addiction. According to the pathway model of problematic mobile phone use [12
], an addictive pattern of smartphone use is characterized by the use of specific applications, including calls and instant messaging. This definition could be extended by evidence from the focus group discussions; participants found that features, such as social media, emails, and games, contributed to increased feelings of dependence. This suggests that rather than being an addictive medium per se, mobile technologies including smartphones and tablets are media that enable the engagement in potentially addictive activities, including social media use. Similarly, it has been argued that individuals do not become addicted to the medium of the Internet per se, but to the activities they engage in on the Internet [48
], such as gaming [49
] or social media use [50
]. With the advent and ubiquity of mobile technologies, this supposition appears particularly pertinent. Using social networking sites is a particularly popular activity on smartphones, with around 80% of social media used via mobile technologies [51
], and around 75% of Facebook
users access Facebook
via their smartphones [52
]. Consequently, social media use and smartphone use appear inherently intertwined [31
], suggesting future research should pay additional attention to the forms and functions of specific smartphone use.
Additionally, dependence items weakly correlated with stress symptoms, and attention impulsivity. With regards to stress, it has been shown that the increased use of smartphones was related to general distress, anxiety and depression [13
]. Further research [9
] also highlighted that stress predicts addictive smartphone use. Individuals may use their smartphones to cope with everyday stressors (e.g., social situations, relationship problems), and using smartphones as coping mechanism can be considered dysfunctional, similar to using the Internet to cope with life problems [55
], resembling symptoms traditionally associated with substance-related addictions [56
Considering attention impulsivity, previous research [2
] has shown that impulsivity was a strong predictor of problematic smartphone use, specifically with regards to the subscales urgency, lack of premeditation and lack of perseverance, which appear related to attention impulsivity [57
]. Similarly, the present research found that higher scores on the dependence factor strongly correlated with ADHD symptoms, which is in line with previous research [58
] in children. Alternatively, it has been suggested that particular types of activities engaged in on smartphones, e.g., gaming, may lead to the development of ADHD symptoms, suggesting future research may be necessary to disentangle the differential impact of specific smartphone application use on possible dependence.
In addition to this, the thematic analysis applied in the present research revealed that there appears to be a strong awareness that using smartphones whilst driving can be dangerous both for the self and for others, which corroborates the quantitative data regarding the PMPU-Q-R dangerous driving factor. This suggests the driving factor is a valid and reliable factor that contributes to explaining contemporary problematic smartphone use, and should therefore be retained in future analyses of problematic smartphone use.
Findings from the qualitative and quantitative analysis suggested that dangerous driving stands out as a distinct form of problematic smartphone behaviour. This corroborates the US Department of Transportation’s report showing smartphone use can distract pedestrians and drivers, leading to potential collisions [28
]. In 2014, over 3000 individuals died in the US as a consequence of being distracted while driving, leading the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue voluntary guidelines for smartphone developers, which aim to restrict the functions of smartphones being used by a driver. A recent report by the American Automobile Association Foundation found that using smartphones, including Apple’s voice control system Siri, is very dangerous in the context of driving as it leads to cognitive distraction [59
The thematic analysis of the focus group data revealed three distinct themes across perceptions of problematic smartphone use, namely smartphone dependence, dangerous driving, and antisocial smartphone use. With regards to the first theme, smartphone dependence, the thematic analysis indicated smartphones are essential elements of individuals’ lives as they are being used for their many functions, going beyond phone calls and texting, including other entertainment functions (e.g., music, pictures), as well as organisational functions (i.e., calendar, alarm). Participants perceived particular smartphone applications as being potentially addictive, including social media, which they were checking compulsively, although there were limited advantages of doing so. Participants found it difficult to reduce the time they spent on their smartphones as these were perceived to be very convenient and functional.
Antisocial smartphone use emerged as a key problematic behaviour, as evidenced through the thematic analysis. Importantly, when looking at the prohibited use items of the PMPU-Q-R, clear links between the qualitative and quantitative analyses emerged. Indeed, most of the prohibited items refer to situations where using smartphones is banned, implying that scoring highly on these items depicts engaging in antisocial behaviours. Beside prohibited use per se, this was a key observation as some individuals use their smartphones in social contexts, which may similarly appear as antisocial, and can consequently impact negatively on their overall social functioning, both in terms of the quality of interaction with others, and with regards to perceptions of rudeness and rejection in interpersonal contexts. Along the same lines, recent research focused on the “phubbing” phenomenon, defined as the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by using one’s phone instead of interacting, and research has shown that such types of antisocial smartphone use are linked to lack of self-control [60
] and lower relationship satisfaction among romantic partners [61
In the current study, participants discussed how they disapproved of friends or couples disengaging from one another whilst engaging with their smartphones, leading to feeling devalued. Similar situations and behaviours have been observed in the context of young people disconnecting from their offline contacts for the sake of connecting online, which has been linked to a preference for online social interaction [62
]. This was tied to an awareness of public perceptions on the individuals’ smartphone use, often leading to behavioural change in terms of limiting use in particular situations and contexts, as found in the present research.
With regards to the integration of both methods using the adopted convergent design, the findings confirm that a combination of prohibited and dangerous items from the PMPU-Q-R may be explained by antisocial smartphone use. Further research is necessary to inquire about motivations for smartphone use, as well as the norms of smartphone use in public, given that stigma and public perceptions appear to significantly contribute to how smartphone use is perceived by the users regarding being prohibited or dangerous. The focus group data analysis furthermore revealed that public perceptions may lead to behavioural change in terms of how individuals engage with their smartphones, emphasising the need to assess problematic smartphone use within its sociocultural context, bearing in mind the cultural and behavioural norms associated with smartphone use. Using anthropological and cultural studies may aid our understanding and study of the impacts of technology use as it has been shown to be particularly insightful in the study of specific technology use, such as gaming, given it allows for an assessment of the behavioural norms and practices surrounding a concrete behaviour [63
]. The individual’s context is a significant factor that can mark the dividing line between problematic smartphone use and potential smartphone “addiction”, and the smartphone use context can gain particular importance for users, depending on their life situation (i.e., the meaning they attach to their smartphone) and smartphone use preferences (i.e., particular types of apps used and activities engaged in). Moreover, the cultural context is significant because it embeds the smartphone user in a community with shared beliefs and practices, endowing their use with particular meaning as well as possible stigma. The context of the individual, the specific smartphone use and the smartphone use environment, as well as the broader framework of the respective culture the user is situated in are relevant in the study of problematic smartphone use and are therefore recommended to be used in the context of future smartphone use research [10
Regarding the methodology that has been utilised in the present research, mixed methods have been employed, integrating quantitative with qualitative techniques. There was an existing body of theory to draw on [12
], but it needed updating, so mixed methods allowed us to combine previous theory with present experiential understanding. The mixing of quantitative with qualitative methods is a challenging endeavour, particularly as these methods can be understood as separate scientific paradigms. One could claim these methods are incommensurate as their unit of analysis (i.e., words versus numbers), their epistemological position (i.e., knowledge derived from meaning versus behaviours), and their source of scientific knowledge (i.e., induction versus deduction) are inherently incompatible. Accordingly, the adherence to a single method could be seen as the epitome of normal science, indicating a scientific revolution is necessary to integrate the seemingly incongruous positions of quantitative and qualitative research. This integration overcomes the limitations of a single methodology, i.e., its inevitable incompleteness. The usage of mixed methods, on the other hand, allows for the corroboration, elaboration, and complementation of findings [65
]. The present study corroborated the PMPU-Q-R structure in terms of the dependence factor, and suggested that dangerous driving is a distinct factor that needs considering when studying problematic smartphone use. Moreover, the qualitative element of this research complemented the quantitative findings with regards to the combination of the dangerous and prohibited factor by elaborating on how antisocial use and public perceptions may contribute to individual perceptions of norms surrounding smartphone use in different contexts.