Smartphone-induced flow experiences may act as a trigger for compulsive buying behavior among Gen Z

Smartphone-induced flow experiences may act as a trigger for compulsive buying behavior among Gen Z

A recent survey of students in Italy found that smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying are related. Additionally, the mental activities a person uses to regulate his/her mood strengthen that link. Flow experiences, i.e. cognitive states of total absorption in an activity characterized by pleasant feelings and a loss of sense to time, were found to have the same strengthening effect. The study was published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Widespread use and availability of smartphones and other mobile devices have significantly changed our lives. Important activities from various domains of life are ever more vehiculated through the screen of a smartphone. With mobile sales expected to grow to 700 billion dollars by 2025, mobile devices have greatly modified consumer spending habits.

Smartphones have become a fundamental tool of our everyday life, but studies are also pointing to cases of dysfunctional use of mobile devices – such as smartphone addiction, which is particularly prevalent among young people, affecting their social life and well-being.

Smartphone addiction, which authors of the study define as “excessive use of smartphones characterized by uncontrolled usage, neglect of daily activities, and negative consequences for user’s life” has attracted much research in recent years. Studies have particularly been focused on the so-called Generation Z – young adults born in 1995 or later who have not experienced the world without digital technology and are therefore considered “digital natives” by many.

Constantly connected via digital technology, living in an environment vastly more stimulating than environments of previous generations, they are considered the key to the ongoing transformation of the economy that sees vast increase in e-commerce, economic activities organized around the use of mobile devices.

To study the relationship between smartphone addiction and online excessive buying and identify psychological mechanisms underpinning this relationship, Prof. Michela Cesarina Mason and her colleagues surveyed a sample of 252 Italian students, all members of the Generation Z. The 20-minute survey was conducted in 2018 and 2019.

Participants were recruited through schools and universities and then selected from a list using what is called a systematic sampling procedure. They were asked to fill in a questionnaire that asked about certain sociodemographic characteristics and contained psychological assessment scales for online compulsive buying, smartphone-induced flow experience (SFE), smartphone addiction and mood regulation while using smartphones (MRS).

The results showed that people with higher levels of smartphone addiction were also more prone to online compulsive buying. Further statistical analysis indicated that online compulsive buying is also related to mood regulation using smartphones and smartphone-induced flow experiences.

When controlling for these last two characteristics, the link between smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying disappeared. This lead researchers to conclude that the association between smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying might be mediated by smartphone-induced flow experiences and mood regulation activities using smartphones.

Authors state that dysfunctional smartphone users may use their devices to regulate their negative moods in ways that lead to “greater exposure to online environments such as shopping platforms and social media and their funny and thrilling experiences. This may significantly contribute to the generation of ‘flow’ states (e.g. while browsing flow-inducing shopping platforms), which may act as a trigger for their compulsive buying behavior.”

While the study provided valuable insights into psychological mechanisms regulating smartphone use and online shopping behavior, authors note that they evaluated smartphone addiction without assessing usage intensity and their study captured only results from a single timepoint thus limiting the generalizability of findings. Notably, further exploration efforts in this area should include assessment of smartphone usage and observe the behavior of participants over a longer period.

The study, “Glued to your phone? Generation Z’s smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying“, was authored by Michela Cesarina Mason, Gioele Zamparo, Andrea Marini and Nisreeen Ameen.

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