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.
Some might argue that chronic overuse of social media can be considered addictive, but it is currently not recognized as such by the American Psychiatric Association.
There are important differences between excessive use of social media and substances in terms of addiction. For example, removing the latter is often physically unpleasant and sometimes dangerous without medical supervision. Users often suffer from stigma, which can be a barrier to seeking help. By comparison, it has not yet been established that there are physical withdrawal effects when people stop using social media.
Looking more at the use of social media as a continuum of possible harm might give more space to well-targeted messages that might prevent problems from developing in the first place.
There are clearly elements of social media use that resonate with certain characterizations of addiction, such as psychological notions of excessive appetites or strong motivations, and the built-in platform mechanisms of reinforcement by random or random affirmations or “likes”. It is also clear that it can be harmful in terms of negatively impacting the self-esteem and body image of some users.
But despite these factors, the most useful question might be how to create a healthy balance of interaction in our virtual and real worlds.
It should be remembered that behavioral addictions, such as substance abuse, often occur alongside other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, suggesting that vulnerability can be multifaceted. This can also be true with excessive use of social media.
This article by Bev John, Professor of Addiction and Health Psychology, University of South Wales and Martin Graff, Lecturer in Relationship Psychology, University of South Wales, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.