Mobile Phone Addiction as the Behaviorist Sees It

Mobile phones are one of the most powerful technological tools, and since its beginning with Motorola in 1973, the phenomena over its popularity continues to grow (Parasuraman et al., 2017).  Mobile phone addiction often goes unrecognized until the personal device goes missing or stops working.  The addictive properties of the modern-day cell phone are a global issue, which spans over seven billion users worldwide (Parasuraman et al., 2017).

The number of mobile phone users is growing exponentially every year, and it has become a significant part of a social construct according to some experts.  The current problematic use of the mobile phone has researchers looking for answers.

It will be important to have a behaviorist’s perspective on the newly discovered social problem. The research will cover the proof of mobile phone addiction, a behavioral analysis of mobile phone addiction, behavioral solutions, and the limitations found within the behavioral solutions.

Mobile phone usage is growing, and the serious implications of addiction can cause changes among all social networks.  A behaviorist’s perspective on addiction can offer support in untangling this mobile craze.

Proof of Mobile Phone Addiction (MPA)

First, there were several studies completed on MPA, and those mentioned here are from Panjab University, medical college of Delhi in India, and Jilin University.  These three studies were about the impulsiveness on mobile phone addiction, the influence of alexithymia on mobile phone addiction, and addiction like behavior associated with cell phone use.

Before sharing the behaviorists view and analysis of MPA, it will be good to share examples of the joint research methodologies and a review of the joint results.

Joint Research Methodology

The studies completed by Panjab, Delhi, and Jilin academic institutions were using sample sizes ranging between 100 and 1,105 participants for the purpose of generating the results needed to prove MPA (Basu et al., 2018; Gao et al., 2018; Vinayak & Malhotra, 2017).

The levels of male to female throughout all studies varied slightly, but there were no large inequalities between genders throughout the participant’s characteristics.   The method of data collection used in these studies were related to cross-sectional surveys and semi-structured questionnaires (Basu et al., 2018; Gao et al., 2018; Vinayak & Malhotra, 2017).

Studies completed used a comparison method of data gatherings and the third study used a yes/no or multiple-choice questioner to gather data.  The problem found in all three studies was that the groups of participants were of a single social group.  Future studies need to include cross cultural examination.  Results of the studies help develop the evidence needed to prove MPA exists and is a developing social concern.

Combined Results

The results of all studies show signs of addiction related to MPA included depression, mood changing, tiredness, irritability, anxiety, impulsiveness, stress, and mounting tension prior to using the device (Basu et al., 2018; Gao et al., 2018; Vinayak & Malhotra, 2017).

It can be predicted that the more functionality, the more addictive they become.  There is a sense of dependency on a device that can do just about anything.  It is possible to take this one step farther by saying social norms that existed in 1980 are now vastly different.

Those who were heroes in the field of behaviorism, like Skinner or Watson, might find the current cell phone dependency problem the beginning a large breakdown in societal norms.  Behavioral analysis of MPA will help bring this modern-day obsession to life.

Behavioral Analysis of Mobile Phone Addiction (MPA)

Secondly, behaviorists and motivational theorists have an interest in the current MPA dilemma.  Dangers within the mobile communities are concerning.  This is in addition to the often-addictive properties.  An example is the concept of trust.  Trust was something to be earned, but the mobile phone epidemic made trust naively gained through long distance relationships. Trust forms when oxytocin levels increase in the brain (Kosfeld et al., 2005).

Ease of use of mobile devices makes it dangerous.  It will help to have all sides of behaviorism weighing in on the issue of MPA by looking at the behaviorist’s analysis on the problem, the viewpoint of Skinner and Watson, and the insights from motivational theorists.

Behaviorist’s Analyses on The Problem of Mobile Phone Addiction

Behaviorist, like Skinner and Watson, would explain the differences between cell phone use and operant or classical conditioning.  If the cell phone can become the stimuli for unconscious brain activity, then it is possible to form addictive behaviors.

Dopamine is that feel good chemical which is released when a person is rewarded (Hothersall, 2015).  Events that help increase dopamine include drinking a cold glass of water when extremely thirsty or eating delicious comfort foods.  The increased dopamine activity is found in those who have a drug dependency or addiction (Hothersall, 2015).  The mobile phone has now entered the same arena as an addictive substance.

What Would Skinner Say?

Neo-behaviorism is different from the radical behaviorism that Skinner supported, but it still is important to understand the behavioral modification strategies used by Skinner (Moore, 2013).  Skinner was known for operant conditioning which reinforced or rewarded behavior (Ruiz, 1995; Hothersall, 2015).  This would be Skinner’s beginning point in the pursuit of behavioral modification.

The mobile phone contains all the bells and whistles needed to modify human behavior.  Every time an e-mail, text, Facebook post, or some other interactive social media app sounds an alert, it triggers a reaction of spontaneous curiosity.  The inquisitive mind wants to know who is calling or texting.

It is the same curiosity people develop when spinning a wheel for a prize at the carnival.  Skinner passed away in 1990 and just short of experiencing the developing mobile phone epidemic (Rutherford, 2000).  Although Skinner did not experience the mobile phone generation, he certainly knew the concepts of what this type of technology can do to the human mind.

Classical conditioning became too simplistic and therefore embraced operant conditioning (Rutherford, 2000).   Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning would explain the addiction of mobile devices by explaining the attraction to the rewards developing behavior.  Watson differed by following the concepts of classical conditioning.

What Would Watson Say?

Watson, an advocate of classical conditioning, followed the works of Dr. Ivan Pavlov.  Watson also wanted to use classical conditioning to explain Freud’s philosophies, and at the same time embraced behaviorism’s concepts of observing, predicting, and controlling behavior (Rilling, n.d.; Hothersall, 2015).

Conditioned emotional responses are what makes the mobile phone an addictive device.  Social media stirs the human emotion and it elicits responses from those who either support or reject an idea placed on the internet.  This constant barrage of information can eventually create a form of anxiousness (Wolniewicz et al., n.d.).

The current state of civil unrest is what is really unsettling.  It is the polarization of the United States that causes war.  The revolutionary and civil wars are two examples of what can happen when people begin to polarize throughout a nation.  Mobile devices are the catalyst for this type of dissonance.  Motivational theorists will argue that it has much to do with the chemical changes within the brain that draws people to the internet and mobile community.

What Would Motivational Theorists Say?

The motivational theorist would look at both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational anchors.  Extrinsic motivation is when people carry out a task because of an external reward or punishment (Graham & Weiner, 2012).  Intrinsic motivation is rewarding because of our natural ability to be interested in the topic.  Mobile phone use can be an intrinsic motivator since its spontaneously satisfies and draws interest from the user (Graham & Weiner, 2012; Deci & Ryan, 2008).

A smartphone includes games, social media websites, and other apps that draw the attention of the user.  Although intrinsic motivation makes more sense when relating it to MPA, external motivation can also play a role.

Extrinsic motivation exists when the mobile phone is used for work.  An example would be if a boss demands the phone be answered every time he/she calls.  This would be an extrinsic motivator and the use of punishment or the fear of disappointment would be motivating factors.

Motivational theorists may also look at self-determination theory (SDT) to understand MPA. SDT is a how an individual is motivated without external influences (Graham & Weiner, 2012).  Deci and Ryan (2008) explain how self-determination theory (SDT) is setup to recognize that people can be alienated, automatic, passive, and dissatisfied.

Lastly, motivational theorist that constant interruption of tasks contributes to the increase of anxiety (Smock, 1957).  The constant interruption that a mobile phone provides feeds the brain with an increased level of dopamine.  The question is, are there any real behavioral solutions for MPA?

Behavioral Solutions

Thirdly, behaviorism holds many solutions to difficult social problems including addiction.  More modern techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), have been extremely affective in reducing anxiety, depression, adult ADHD, and addiction (Maguire et al., 2018).

Science came a long way in understanding the chemical imbalances that occur in the brain which fostered the rise in psychopharmacotherapy.  The concept of using pharmaceutical drugs to ease the suffering that comes with mental illness.  It is the side effects of these drugs that bring people back to a more conventional form of treatment like CBT or psychotherapy.  MPA is a curable form of addiction.

What Solutions Can Behaviorism Offer?

Limiting mobile cell phone usage and monitoring devices are ways to reduce the negative impact of addiction (Gao et al., 2018). Offer extrinsic motivational tactics to persuade mobile phone users to use the device less often.  Extrinsic values include that promise of money to stir excitement or the threat of losing something of value (Niemiec et al., 2009; Deci & Ryan, 2008; Graham & Weiner, 2012).

The creation of an app that tracks use and offers rewards for limiting the use of a device should be considered as a tool to control mobile phone behavior.  Positive reinforcement can be used to trigger a more desirable and balanced outcome.

A more extreme measure would include penalties tied to an extreme use of a mobile device.  Software currently has limited ability to control usage, and it certainly does not reward users for limiting their handling of texts, calls, and internet.  The rewarding or punishment of mobile phone usage is using either intrinsic or extrinsic motivational concepts.  Behavioral solutions consist of CBT, psychotherapy, or extrinsic/intrinsic motivation to help with MPA.  Every solution comes with limitations.  Limitations will then call for alternative solutions.

Limitations of the Behavioral Solution

Lastly, all solution will have some form of limitations–differing from client to client depending on their social background and beliefs.  Every human has a complicated thought process that needs individualized attention.  It is this fact that causes limitations on MPA behavioral modifications.  It is important to understand the limitations that exist with behavioral therapy and proposals that address those limitations.

What Limitations Exist in A Behavioral Interpretation and Solution of Mobile Phone Addiction?

A problem with the “one fits all” solution is that the theory of personality psychology will limit the effects.  The field of personality psychology stays unchanging across circumstances and will be distinctive for the individual (Mischel & Shoda, 1995).

Psychological forces make all people individually different and therefore impossible to cover 100 percent of the population with a single solution (Mischel & Shoda, 1995).  The social difference we all face makes it difficult to sometimes manage clients.  Client may refuse that MPA is even a psychological problem.

The other problem is that clients may lose interest in receiving help and attendance for therapy goes down.  Testing of MPA on those who have others mental disorder, like bipolar, can make therapy a multiple layered problem (Burdick et al., 2014).  The last limitation includes the difficulty of steering patients back from topics outside therapy and make staying on target a concern for psychological growth (Okamoto et al., 2019).  With many limitations comes with some proposed resolutions.

Proposal to Resolve Limitations

The optimal arousal model of motivation argues that people can’t be too stimulated or not stimulated enough (Hothersall, 2015).  The claim from the best arousal model may be a way of solving the limitations to repairing the mobile phone addiction.  There may be only a few motivational tactics needed in changing 80 percent of the behavioral pattern of heavy mobile phone users.  This would follow the same 80/20 rule that is used in business.

This would mean that only 20 percent of the known methods will be effective.  Clients will have to be individually treated considering their social backgrounds and underlying psychological health.  It will take the responsiveness towards the client’s cultural beliefs and preferences (Okamoto et al., 2019).  It is also best to use the client’s knowledge for the foundation of therapeutic treatment (Okamoto et al., 2019).

It seems the world has caught the cellular bug, but it comes with some caution.  The fear remains that the younger people learn about mobile phone use, the worse MPA may become.  Only time will expose the true danger of constant cell phone usage.  Additional studies are needed to better prepare for future mobile addicted teenagers, adults, and the elderly.


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Matt Correll, MSML is passionate about the study of organizational psychology and leadership.  He has over 30 years of experience in management and holds a master’s degree in leadership.  Currently, Matt is working towards completing his PhD in organizational and industrial psychology, adding to an already compelling background in business.  Matt continues to focus on mobile phone phenomena.  Visit Matt Correll at and become linked

Mobile Phone Addiction as the Behaviorist Sees It


APA Reference
Correll, M. (2019). Mobile Phone Addiction as the Behaviorist Sees It. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Sep 2019
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