New Study Says iPhones Addictive: More Bad Statistics

(Note: I do not have an iPhone, nor “smart” phone of any kind.)

Addiction is a strong word. It means, as the authors of the study are content to allow us to infer, an abnormal craving or desire, even to the point of pathology. Drunks and druggies are addicts. Obsession is a close cousin to addiction.

It’s possible to be clever about this. We are all “addicted” to food, air, water. And the same with sleep, talking, and so forth. These are “healthy” addictions. But only an academic would use that word to describe normal and necessary behaviors. The rest of us take it to mean something nasty and undesirable.

Especially if we hear that word used in a “scientific study” on behavior.

Professor Tanya Luhrmann—a Stanford anthropology professor whose early work looked into modern-day witchcraft, and who wrote what appears to be a useful book contrasting talk versus chemical therapies in psychiatry—decided to investigate “addiction” to iPhones.

Since Luhrmann has expertise in psychiatry, it is strange she would use such a strong word to describe how people use their cell phones. But she did: she directed a team which conducted a survey designed to diagnose the intensity of iPhone use.

And like many professors, Luhrmann used a ready sampling method: her students. How many? 200! Yes, only two hundred. From these 200, she, like a legion of academics before her, and host still to come, extrapolated to the rest of us.

According to a Live Science report on the study, students were “asked to rank their dependence on the iPhone on a scale of one to five — five being addicted and one being not at all addicted — 10 percent of the students acknowledged full addiction to the device, 34 percent ranked themselves as a four on the scale, and only 6 percent said they weren’t addicted at all.”

From this, they inferred the title, “iPhone Addictive, Survey Reveals.”

In other words, students were allowed to self-define “addiction” and to rate themselves on their own self-defined scale. It is crucial to understand this. Imagine a group in which there is no pathological addiction, but then ask the members of that group to rate their “addiction” on a one to five scale. You will not see everybody answering “one”, or “no addiction.” This is especially true with students and their known sense of frivolity.

You can get a useful answer from a survey like this—from a group where it is known that no addictions exist—but the usefulness is constrained to describing the distribution of how people in that context, and in that survey, interpret the word “addiction.”

I would wager that College students will be more careless, more flippant, about using the word “addiction” than would, say, middle-aged executives. “Dude, I am totally addicted to this thing” is a sentence you can readily imagine an 18-year-old uttering. It’s more difficult to conjure an image of the assistant manager at Walmart saying the same thing. This is true even if both parties use their phones for identical lengths of time.

Now, in the 200 kids—excuse me, 200 mostly young adults—surveyed, there may have been genuine iPhone addicts, where that word is used in its pathological sense. But it is not a given that these true addicts would admit that they are in a survey. Sometimes the last person to know a man is a drunk is the drunk himself.

This is the failing of self-reported surveys. The possibilities for error are enormous. But these uncertainties are never—I have never seen an instance—accounted for in the final analysis. They sure weren’t in this study.

What probably happened is that Luhrmann and her colleagues decided it would be easy to pump out a quick paper and they cast about for something topical. Anything with “iPhone” in the title would sure be catchy. So, a survey was cobbled together—excuse me, an “instrument was designed”—and quickly given to two sections of Anthropology 101 (yes, I’m guessing about that).

This summary may be unfair, but how else could she and her colleagues have reported that “8 percent admitted that they have at some time thought ‘My iPod is jealous of my iPhone.'”? Eight percent weren’t volunteering that information: they were checking a box where that punchline already existed. Frivolity is not just a symptom of studenthood.

Why grouse, since it’s all in fun? Because not everybody will get the joke. And besides, it wasn’t meant to be funny. Luhrmann does a tremendous disservice by allowing a false—or at least far from proven—belief about addiction to cell phones to enter the culture.

It’s too easy to imagine some ambulance chaser citing this study in his attempt to win an award for “pain and suffering” for a client who was “so addicted” to her iPhone that she crashed and destroyed her car.

Update Intrepid legman, reader and contributer Bernie wrote and received a copy of the survey from Professor Luhrmann. It was the result of a graduate Research Methods class at Stanford. It looks it, too. The only thing I would change above is not how Professor Luhrmann could publish this—for it doesn’t look like she has or intends to—but how she could let it get out into the press, which was given the impression this was a respectable study. I still question how the word “addiction” is used.


  1. Bernie

    I could not find a citation for this actual study. Did I miss it? It sounds like a student thesis type of study. I am actually pretty impressed that they could find 200 subjects who actually had iPhones or the near equivalent. But with Apple down the street from Palo Alto, I guess there are deals to be had.

    I cannot begin to express my frustration with fields where findings are based on the behaviors, decisions and thought processes of college sophmores. Silly is hardly the word for it. It is an utter waste of time and an academic scam.

    Obviously you are right that this type of self-report survey is silly and has little redeeming value except to illustrate (a) how not to formulate a research question and (b) the limitations of self report surveys.

    Dust bowl empiricism strikes again!

  2. Chuckles

    A departmental spokesperson stated that the design criteria for the survey had been no different to all their other surveys, and confirmed that the survey title had ‘Almost selected itself!’

  3. Katie

    Sometimes researchers request/authorize a press release on their latest study (sometimes one that has not found [nor will ever find] a home in a peer-reviewed journal) to generate media attention. The buzz benefits not only the researcher but also the home institution, which often keeps careful track of media mentions.

  4. Katie

    PS I’m not suggesting this happened in this particular study. I’m just suggesting that this happens.

  5. dearieme

    Do Stanford’s Statutes allow them to sack a Professor for being a bloody embarrassment? INWN?

  6. Ken

    Why not ask the professor for a copy of the survey questions, student demographics, etc & build on that info:

    Tanya Luhrmann
    Professor of Anthropology and of Psychology

    Work phone(s): (659) 723-3421
    Work Fax: (650) 725-0605
    Anthropology, Building 50
    Stanford University
    Stanford, California 94305-2034

    The above from:

  7. Bernie

    I wrote and asked for a preprint and the survey. I will let you know if and when it arrives.

  8. Is it only me that finds it passing strange a “serious” anthropologist would claim to have done a study on a specific brand name product rather than the entire line of similar generic items? Or did I miss where she mentioned “smartphones” elsewhere in the report?

    Apples headquarters nearby and all that, but why would anyone [other than Matt’s ambulance chaser friends, of course] give this laugher credence? Maybe Katie is on to something.

  9. Matt

    I have a few questions about this survey and others like it purporting to show addictiveness of .

    What percentage of respondents verifyibly own ?

    What percentage of respondents admit to not owning ?

    What is the likely hood of respondents self reporting addiction just to avoid admiting that they don’t own ? Especially when the survey is local to the headquarters of the manufacturer of ?

  10. Matt

    I have a few questions about this survey and others like it purporting to show addictiveness of “trendy gadget”.

    What percentage of respondents verifyibly own “trendy gadget”?

    What percentage of respondents admit to not owning “trendy gadget”?

    What is the likely hood of respondents self reporting addiction just to avoid admiting that they don’t own “trendy gadget”? Especially when the survey is local to the headquarters of the manufacturer of “trendy gadget”?

  11. Publish or Perish has driven academics to create sub-par studies that they can dash off in a few hours. Polling students about anything is academic anemia.

    I imagine the following: Prof. Lazy is basking in his do-nothing job, collecting his checks, ogling the coeds, throwing off lectures about nothing at all, when suddenly the Dean calls him onto the carpet and says, “Gee whiz Joe, you haven’t published anything for two years. Why are we keeping you on the faculty?”

    In a panic, Prof J.L. dreams up a rush study. He polls his students, about something, anything. What brand of toothpaste do you use and why? Answers are due at the end of the class period. Then slapping the “data” into Excel, he derives a p-value. Two hours later the “paper” is ready for “peer-review.” His job is saved!!!

    Meanwhile his cousin Hardy Labor sees his taxes go up 20% to support “higher education” because we need to “invest in the future.” Shortly thereafter the students riot because their classes are “too tough.”

  12. “What is the likely hood of respondents self reporting addiction just to avoid admiting that they don’t own ‘trendy gadget'”?

    I’d imagine Palo Alto is a very likely ‘hood indeed for trendy gadgetlessness to be regarded as a social stigma.

  13. Bernie

    I guess one could comment on the rigor of methods training among social anthropologists, but I suspect I could not keep a straight face.

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