Preventing Relapse of Smartphone Game Addiction: A Self-regulatory Process Perspective


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

View graph of relations


Related Research Unit(s)


Awarding Institution
Award date26 Sep 2017


The rapid advancements of smartphone games and the device of the smartphone have led to increased usage of smartphone games. Evidently, smartphone games can satisfy the various motives of users, such as playfulness, social relationship, and relief from negative feelings. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence indicates that addictive playing behaviors related to smartphone games have become prevalent. Addictive behaviors result in a series of negative consequences, such as family and social conflicts. Given the harmful and disturbing outcomes, many individuals attempt to curb their addiction to avoid suffering from severe consequences. However, addicts exhibit a high rate of relapse to information technology (IT) addiction, thereby leading them again to possible addiction after treatment. Relapse reflects the failure of previous treatments. To assist addicts overcome their addiction, the phenomenon of relapse and the method of effectively preventing it in advance should be understood.

The majority of existing information systems (IS) research traditionally assumes that information technology usage is positive and beneficial to users. However, the dangers of IT usage is a relatively new concept in the IS field. Hence, IS research on IT addiction is still evolving. The limited existing studies emphasize symptoms and measurements merely from a conceptual approach or statistical perspective. A few of these studies attempt to reveal the driving forces of IT addiction. The issue of relapse to IT addiction is largely ignored by IS scholars. Accordingly, IS research should understand relapse because of the severe consequences and remarkably high rate of occurrence of this phenomenon. Relapse indicates that previous interventions to IT addiction are ineffective. The significance of studying relapse has been widely recognized in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, which focus on relapse to substance abuse and psychological disorders. An increasing number of non-IS research has been conducted to further understand relapse, as well as involved disclosure of the factors that promote relapse and effective methods to prevent it. Therefore, understanding the concept of relapse in terms of IS research is still a continuing process. In the context of the current study, preventing relapse to smartphone game addiction is generally underexplored.

To fill this research gap, the current study attempts to propose key factors which are essential to prevent relapse to smartphone game addiction. We describe how to facilitate these key factors, and further explain how they can prevent relapse. More specifically, we firstly conceptualize relapse to IT addiction based on previous research related to this issue. Secondly, we employ a self-regulatory process from self-learning literature with three phases. Factors in these three phases tend to undermine the reinforcement mechanism of addiction so that relapse is prevented. Reinforcements are classified as positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is reflected by the approach urge, which is the strong desire for gratification and mood enhancement. Negative reinforcement is reflected by the avoidance urge which is the strong desire for relief from negative emotions and withdrawal. Reinforcement is an underlying mechanism of addictive behavior. Therefore, Factors which can effectively reducing reinforcement (i.e., urges) are valuable for relapse prevention. Regarding the actual implementation of efforts in self-regulatory process, mindfulness and self-control are selected to function as two key factors in the performance phase. Mindfulness mainly reduces the negative reinforcement by coping with negative affect. Self-control can restrain the approach and avoidance urges which evoke relapse. Factors in the first regulatory phase can help to increase the levels of mindfulness and self-control. We also consider that preventing relapse process is influenced by prior IT experience given that relapse is the reappearance of IT addictive behaviors. Ubiquity, which is a device feature, is viewed as a technological facilitator of relapse. Other factors that may predict addiction are controlled in our research model.

A longitudinal online survey was conducted to validate our research model and proposed hypotheses. We gathered 420 valid respondents in China with a response rate of 57.4% (732 respondents at the first response point). Our data were empirically analyzed using Smart Partial Least Squares. Our results show that the relationships hypothesized in our research model were mostly supported. In particular, relapse is completely determined by negative reinforcement, whereas positive reinforcement shows no significant influence. The entire regulatory process can effectively reduce negative reinforcement. The goal of preventing relapse and increased self-efficacy induce the second regulatory phase of mindfulness and self-control. Mindfulness is significantly connected with the reduced negative affect and increases the tolerance of negative affects. The negative effects of self-control on approach and avoidance urges are also supported. Prior experience of negative consequences has a significant impact on the goal of preventing relapse, and prior experience of successful decrease shows a positive effect on self-efficacy. The results also demonstrate a direct impact of ubiquity on relapse, which is against prevention.

This study provides several implications for both theory and practice. For the theoretical implications, this study enriches prior IS research on IT addiction by indicating crucial factors in preventing relapse. Results indicate that negative reinforcement exerts significant influences on relapse. Therefore, in order to effectively avoid relapse, factors which can cut down the levels of negative reinforcement are required and valid. A self-regulatory process applied from self-learning context can be used to solve self-management issues in the context of IT addiction. This research also advances IS research on mindfulness by demonstrating its values in preventing relapse of addiction. Furthermore, we improve the previous research on self-control by indicating factors which can replenish this easily exhausted resource. In terms of practice, this study raises and enhances the awareness of IT users in managing their behaviors to avoid the emergence of relapse to addiction. Our results can provide useful guidance in designing interventions to treat IT addictive behaviors. Our research model demonstrates the key values of mindfulness and self-control in preventing relapse, as well as how they function to prevent recurrence of addictive behaviors. We also indicate antecedents facilitating mindfulness and self-control. Therefore, we believe that different schemes of relapse prevention can be developed based on our research model, and further be evaluated the effectiveness in practice.

    Research areas

  • Smartphone game addiction, relapse, reinforcement mechanism, self-regulatory process