May 20, 2018
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These personality traits put you at risk for smartphone addiction, according to science

Jeff Chiu | AP
Jeff Chiu | AP
An Associated Press reporter holds a mobile phone showing the Facebook Messenger app icon in San Francisco, July 27, 2016.
Tara Bahrampour, The Washington Post
Updated:

When the Trump-affiliated firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users, it used the “Big 5” or “Five Factor Model” personality test to target them with ads designed to influence their votes in the 2016 election.

The test scores people on five traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — and was used in the election to predict the way a voter would respond to an advertisement.

But the Big 5 can predict a lot more — including how likely you are to even use Facebook, or any other social media.

That’s because the way you score on the test can tell you how likely you are to become addicted to your screen. Research shows that people who score high on neuroticism, low on conscientiousness, and low on agreeableness are more likely to become addicted to social media, video games, instant messaging, or other online stimuli. Studies have also found that extraverts are more likely to become addicted to cell phone use than introverts.

Some of the correlations make sense. Less agreeable people may be more apt to immerse themselves in technology because it does not require the kind of friendly interactions that real life does. Neurotic people have been shown to spend more time online because it validates their desire to belong or be part of a group. Conscientious people are less impulsive and therefore more able to control and organize their time.

But then it gets complicated. Because according to a new study out of the State University of New York at Binghamton, specific combinations of those personality traits can mitigate or exaggerate one’s propensity to addiction.

Addiction, said the paper’s co-author Isaac Vaghefi, an assistant professor of information systems at Binghamton, involves some degree of obsessive/compulsiveness, urgency, and online use that has negative consequences.

His study surveyed 275 undergraduate and graduate students and asked about the effects of their online behavior. Addiction was noted when the behavior “impairs their personal relationships, when it causes constant conflicts with peers and partners, when they say, ‘Every time I go back home and we’re having dinner my dad yells at me because I’m on my phone.’”

Other indicators were depression, social anxiety, and loneliness or professional problems resulting from online behavior (for example, missing classes, meetings or deadlines).

Vaghefi estimated that around 20 percent of the population is addicted, but an additional 30 to 40 percent are in danger of it, especially as technology becomes more sophisticated — and addictive.

“It’s hard,” he said. “Technology’s becoming advanced. Facebook and these other companies are working to make people hooked and they’re all improving their features.”

Some of the combinations his study found seem logical: Someone who is highly conscientious and organized is nonetheless at a higher risk for addiction if he or she is also very neurotic and stressed-out.

But some are counterintuitive: The study found that even though conscientiousness and agreeableness are both negatively associated with addiction to social networking sites, a combination of the two traits actually increases one’s tendency to become addicted.

A possible explanation, according to the study, could be that agreeable people “likely value their relationships with their friends” and conscientious people are meticulous about doing things like staying in touch — resulting in the perfect storm of addiction.

So once you know how likely you are to become addicted to online activities, what do you about it?

James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University who has studied the effects of the Big 5 personality traits on online addiction, said a better understanding of the correlations can help people — and particularly parents — steer away from the dangers.

“We need to teach people to have more self-control,” he said. “Our brains are being prepared for fast and furious activities, and that’s undermining our conscientiousness. We talk about our personality impacting our social media use, but our social media use also impacts our personality. … We’ve hooked a generation or two so that they’re prepared for constant stimulation and quick and fast and shallow interactions.”

Vaghefi said he hopes the growing body of research on the topic will help people become more aware and avoid addiction. Noting that there are apps that can tally people’s daily smartphone use, he said, “Most people don’t realize they unlock their phone 200 times a day.”

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