You can’t be ‘addicted’ to social media — but it still sucks


If you spend hours of the day on your phone browsing social media, you’re not unusual. The average internet user spends two hours a day on various social media sites. But does your habit of checking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok every few hours make you a social media junkie?

The term “social media addiction” is increasingly used to describe people who spend a lot of time on these websites and apps. It can be harmful to people in a number of ways – causing low self-esteem, poor sleep, and increased stress.

When considering substance dependence, the main focus is on three key elements: compulsion (or loss of control), tolerance (need to increase the amount to achieve the same effect) and withdrawal (effects unpleasant side effects when stopping use). Other factors to consider include craving, concern, and continued use despite causing obvious problems. It’s easy to see how these factors apply to drugs, but what about shopping, gambling, or, indeed, using social media?

The growing interest in these and other behavioral “addictions” – such as gambling, sex or the Internet – has led to broadening of definitions of what addiction is. Psychologists speak of excessive appetites and powerful motivations for engaging in particular behaviors that have the power to cause extensive unintentional harm.

As researchers in social media and addiction, we have spent the past 25 years understanding different types of addiction. Our research tells us that social media addiction is not the same as addiction to substances, like alcohol and other drugs.

Use of social media

Too much social media can certainly be damaging. One of the main characteristics of social media is that it allows users to control how they present themselves to others. People can change their appearance online and sometimes misrepresent themselves while seeking validation from others.

It can cause all kinds of damage. In a 2019 study, we found that when female users watched platforms for about an hour and a half a day, it was linked to an increased desire to be slim, to an increased awareness of how they think others judge them and their motivation to exercise in order to lose weight.

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And in 2016, we looked at the ways in which people seek validation on social media. We looked at how often people manipulate posts to increase the number of likes they receive, use social media to boost morale, or blindly post issues they don’t necessarily agree with.

We have found that when this type of online behavior increases, self-esteem decreases. But our results don’t necessarily show an obligation to use social media – which is key to making it addictive. Other social factors, such as fear of missing out and narcissistic personality traits, can lead to unhealthy use of social media.

Social media addiction

In 2020, we undertook a study on harmful gambling that may help answer the question of whether social media addiction is real.

We have found that rapid technological advancements in the ease and speed of accessing applications for phones and tablets lead to an increase in gambling harms. Similar psychological processes may be at work on social media platforms, where the need for validation, envy and verification of tastes is amplified.

Behavioral explanations of how addictions develop underscore the power of reinforcement. Gaming products often use the most powerful form of reinforcement – random payouts. This, again, is potentially similar to how users receive validation in the form of “likes” on social media.

Selfie time
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