This study used Brown’s criteria for technological addiction to analyze smartphone addiction symptoms among young Chinese working adults [22, 23]. Withdrawal, salience, and conflict with other activities were the typical smartphone addiction symptoms manifested by the respondents.
Withdrawal refers to experiencing negative feelings when individuals are unable to engage in the activity [22, 23]. It was the most prominent symptom of smartphone addiction identified in this study because a number of young employees indicated that they felt anxious, uneasy, and even panicky when they were unable to use their smartphones. For example, one respondent whose job involved high mobility stated that:
“If I don’t see my phone for a while, I would panic. My work entails extensive traveling. In most situations, my smartphone is the only thing I can rely on to obtain information. When my phone has been out of range for an hour, I become very nervous and start wondering if my colleagues or parents are looking for me because of an emergency…” (Interviewee #30)
In particular, the coding results revealed three main situations where the young employees experienced withdrawal symptoms related to smartphone use. In the first situation, unpleasant feelings arise when they leave their phones at home. “Whenever I leave my smartphone at home, I go back to get it immediately without any hesitation. I still do so even when I might be late for work because of it. Otherwise, an anxious feeling would accompany me the whole day,” a respondent (Interviewee #14) said. In addition, several young employees would immediately apply remedial measures to reduce their negative feelings by seeking for alternative ways to inform others about how to reach them. A young worker stated that:
“I immediately use QQ and other social media channels to let my friends and colleagues know that I do not have my phone with me. I have to let them know how they can find me (e.g., via QQ and office land-line phone) in case an emergency occurs.” (Interviewee #32)
Withdrawal emotions also emerged when the participants’ smartphones ran out of battery. Several young employees recalled becoming very impatient in such situations. “If my phone ran out of battery, I would definitely freak out. Therefore, I charge it every night and never allow it to have less than 20% battery level,” a young respondent (Interviewee #25) said. Another employee, who appeared to be a heavy smartphone addict, indicated that phone battery levels under 40% are unacceptable to him because:
“If my phone’s battery level is lower than 40%, I would become very insecure and would have to charge my phone immediately. If I were outside, I would look for a public charging station to charge the phone. If no public charging station is available, I would start my car and use the automobile phone charger to have my phone charged as soon as possible.” (Interviewee #24)
To prevent the unpleasant feelings associated with flat battery levels, several employees even carried power banks and phone chargers with them wherever they went.
The young employees in this study also experienced undesirable feelings when their smartphones did not have any reception. One employee described the negative emotions he felt when his smartphone had no signal in several remote areas:
“At that time, I felt so bad…very nervous and restless… I kept restarting my phone because I thought it would help. I also constantly shook my phone in the hope of getting a signal. I felt like… my whole body was very uncomfortable.” (Interviewee #14)
One respondent (Interviewee #26) also reported that he often carried two SIM cards from two different telecom companies with him in order to avoid out-of-signal situations. “If one SIM card cannot get a signal in one place, I would change to the other one immediately. Otherwise, I would be very uneasy,” he said.
Notably, several respondents reported that to limit their unpleasant feeling, they carry their smartphones wherever they go. Even when they go to the bathroom, they carry their phones with them.
Salience represents the condition that an activity dominates people’s thoughts and behavior . In this study, the salience symptom was mainly revealed as regularly using or checking smartphones while doing daily activities. The respondents admitted that they frequently checked their phones for work purposes. One respondent explained that:
“I check my phone every one or two minutes. I am afraid of missing any important messages from my customers. My job requires me to be contactable all the time.” (Interviewee #2)
Another young worker (Interviewee #23) admitted that checking his smartphone was a crucial part of his routine. “When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my phone. Every time I go out, the first thing I check is whether I have my phone with me. Even when I am having dinner, I also check my smartphone …,” he said.
Additionally, the coding results revealed that smartphones not only led to the young employees’ checking habits but also preoccupied their minds all the time. One interviewee (Interviewee #13) stated that even when he was doing other important tasks and his two hands were busy, he could not help wondering if new messages have come in.
Conflict is the third smartphone addiction symptom identified in this study. According to Brown, conflict reflects how people’s activity leads to a clash with other people and other activities . Throughout the interviews, the young employees narrated that their smartphone use interfered with various daily activities, such as family gatherings, social gatherings, and work.
Conflicts with family activities was the most frequently mentioned theme in the interviews. The respondents indicated that their smartphone use interfered with their family gatherings. “My mother often shouts to me, ‘Don’t play on your phone anymore!’ when we have dinner together,” a respondent (Interviewee #28) said. Another employee described his parents’ complaints about his smartphone use:
“When I am having dinner with my parents, I seldom talk to them. I just sit there, looking only at my smartphone and checking new messages or emails. My parents have complained about this many times…” (Interviewee #2)
Smartphone use had also interfered with the social gatherings of the respondents. The abovementioned respondent admitted that he was often criticized by his friends because of his smartphone use and said that “once when my friends and I had dinner together, I checked my phone status constantly and replied to messages. At that time, my friends criticized me and asked me to concentrate on having dinner with them.” Moreover, smartphone use had disrupted dating as well. Another interviewee said that using his smartphone for news updates had disrupted his romantic relationship:
“My girlfriend has complained about my smartphone use many times. When I am out on a date with her, she wants me to talk to her… but I always have phone calls and stare at the phone screen to check for messages or send emails. We have had many fights because of this…” (Interviewee #24)
With regard to smartphone use causing conflicts with work, a few respondents indicated that their smartphone use decreased their job efficiency because it seriously distracted them from the work they were doing. One respondent who needs to stay connected via his smartphone said:
“Previously, I could focus on one task in one hour. Now, I am unable to concentrate on one task within five minutes. I am easily distracted from the work that I am currently doing because I always think about my phone and keep checking it at work. If a new message comes in, I stop my current task and start dealing with this new message instead. It is like my attention is always distracted by my phone. Consequently, my job efficiency has decreased. Even worse, I sometimes make mistakes due to the distraction.” (Interviewee #13)
Phantom phone signals
Phantom phone signals (PPS) is a new symptom identified in this study. Similar to studies on mobile phones [30, 31], this study defines PPS as an individual’s illusory perception of a phone signal indicating an incoming call, message, or social media notification when no such signal is transmitted in reality. Twenty-one young employees reported that they have experienced phantom vibration or ringing when nobody has called or texted them. “Sometimes I think I hear my phone ring or vibrate. After checking it, I find that nothing has happened…my phone is completely still. This situation happens very often,” an employee (Interviewee #1) said. Likewise, another respondent who used a smartphone very frequently described a similar symptom:
“I think I really have to keep myself away from my smartphone sometimes. I am serious. I am now experiencing phantom vibration or ringing very frequently. I often feel that my phone is ringing or vibrating in my pocket, but the reality is it is not. Am I sick? It scares a little bit.” (Interviewee #14)
The respondents further explained that this PPS symptom often occurs when they are waiting for important messages or in public places, such as busy streets or crowed shopping malls. For example, an employee said:
“After I introduce the products, I normally need to wait for my customers’ replies about whether or not they would buy our products. While waiting, I check my phone repeatedly because I constantly feel that my phone is ringing or vibrating when in fact, there is no alert at all.” (Interviewee #19)
With regard to the PPS symptom that occurs in public places, an interviewee (Interviewee #26) shared his latest experience on the street. He said, “The last time I was walking down the street where loud music was being played, I thought my phone was ringing. I kept checking it again and again but found out that I was only imagining it.” Another example came from an iPhone user who has experienced phone ring hallucination frequently. He (Interviewee #30) mentioned that whenever he hears an iPhone ringtone nearby, his first reaction is to check his own phone to see if someone is calling him.
From the interviews, three psychological factors drawn from the Big Five personality traits were determined to affect young employees’ smartphone addiction; these three are conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extroversion.
Conscientiousness, which is characterized by achievement, self-discipline, and dutifulness, was the most mentioned psychological factor related to smartphone addiction among young Chinese workers. The results showed that conscientious persons, especially those who work in professions with demands to stay connected and accessible, are likely to develop smartphone addiction. One respondent (Interviewee #26) regarded himself as a dutiful person and said, “I cannot allow (work-related) problems to happen due to my own carelessness or irresponsibility. Thus, I make myself available 24 hours via my smartphone to stay connected with work.” He holds his smartphone at all times out of fear that he would miss important calls on weekends or holidays. Another respondent shared similar information regarding the relationship between conscientiousness and smartphone addiction by stating that:
“I am a conscientious person and sort of results-oriented. I am very aware that timely responses to my customers’ concerns are crucial for my work. My smartphone serves as a convenient platform to immediately understand customers’ needs and handle their matters. If I were to forget to bring my smartphone, I would be very nervous and unsettled because it might deteriorate my job performance…” (Interviewee #30)
Neuroticism, which refers to a person’s tendency to be emotionally unstable, was identified as another psychological factor that affects smartphone addiction. According to the coding results, neurotic workers who become anxious easily and are sensitive to others’ responses are likely to develop smartphone addiction symptoms. One employee mentioned:
“I easily worry about many things, such as missing important calls, scheduling work wrongly, and insufficient preparation for my tasks. When I forget to bring my phone, I feel very anxious and unsettled. Even when my phone is with me, I still worry about missing calls frequently.” (Interviewee #18)
With regard to sensitivity towards others’ feedback or evaluation, a young employee(Interviewee #7), whose job required him to stay in touch, expressed that, “… after my colleagues complained about their loss of connection with me for a few times, I began to pay close attention to my smartphone status because I really care about how my friends look at me. I don’t want to be viewed as an unreliable person.”
Extroversion was also identified as a psychological factor that affects smartphone addiction. Several respondents indicated that extroverts, who are described as sociable and talkative, are likely to rely on smartphones because these devices provide a convenient platform for them to communicate with others and express their opinions or emotions. For instance, one interviewee (Interviewee #27) remarked that, “I like making friends and engaging in sociable activities. The social media apps on my smartphone enable me to socialize with others, such as my colleagues and clients, and freely express myself. I really enjoy my smartphone and have become attached to it.”
However, an interviewee provided a different explanation for the association between extroversion and smartphone addiction. He believed that introverts are likely to become hooked on smartphones because the mediated platform smartphones provide allows them to relax during social interaction. He stated that:
“Smartphones provide a relaxed platform for people such as myself who are a little introverted. I am often too shy to talk face to face. Through my smartphone, I feel comfortable and relaxed. It’s like…I turn into a different me, an extroverted person, in the smartphone platform. This might be the reason I am dependent on my smartphone.” (Interviewee #3)