Whenever the word addiction comes to mind, the most immediate metaphor that speaks to me is a drug. Drug addiction is possibly the most classical form of addiction known. Someone takes a drug for certain reasons. Sometimes these reasons are psychological. There are even sometimes symptoms of use and withdrawal. It is these things and more that reinforce the idea behind drug addiction as pathological. Serious stuff right? Well when making serious claims, one needs to really check out their facts.
Yea sure, many people use social media and exhaust lots of time on it. However is it so serious as to call it addicting? Surely things viewed on screens can’t program mental pathology into humans. I mean, a social media website isn’t a drug you ingest. It is independent from your body unlike an addicting chemical willingly taken in. Or is seeing and participating in it, even behind a screen, simulate this drug-like use and re-use cycle characteristic of any junkie?
Facts and problems
Before jumping ahead and calling social media addicting, one always has to survey the facts. Today, some of the top two social media websites used for social networking include Facebook and Twitter. Each website provides different services and accessibility for its users, including both desktop and mobile access. All of them have a huge user subscription. According to Jeff Bullas, a writer on social media, Facebook recently has passed 1.1 billion in monthly active users. Twitter has seen a 44% growth from June 2012 to March 2013, with 228 million monthly active users. Whereas LinkedIn has only seen an overall 200 million user-base. What I’d like to stress here is that both Facebook and Twitter’s user activity count is in the billions and millions respectively. However a social media site doesn’t just pride itself on its user account, but also its usage.
It is estimated that the average Facebook user spends 6 hours a month on Facebook, and 11 hours a month for mobile users. Whereas the average Twitter user spends 170 minutes a month on Twitter. Personally in contrast to the social networks’ user-base numbers, the average usage isn’t all too bad. In fact, with all the discussion on the excess usage of sites like Facebook and Twitter, I would have expected more gross averages. Seems strange doesn’t it? However, if you and I stopped here and said to ourselves “well I guess the average user doesn’t spend much time on these sites, social media has no chance of being addicting,” we’d be poor investigators.
There are currently two problems that need to be brought into limelight. Firstly, the type of addiction being investigated here is to social media. This includes social media beyond the scope of just Facebook and Twitter. According to one recent study social media actually exhausts approximately 3+ hours of time in an average American’s day. This includes 3.8 hours a day for 18-34 year-olds on average, dropping only to 3 hours a day for 35-49 year-olds. In fact, if you click on the chart included in this section, a large array of parameters suggests that some users even spend more than 4+ hours daily on social networking websites.
The second problem is this focus on ‘average’. A synergistic measure of average daily time spent on social media may help imply a larger-scale “epidemic” for social media addiction, but it cannot easily show what it means for an individual to be addicted to a particular social medium or media. The reason for this can simply be explained by contrasting a coffee drinker with a social media user. A coffee drinker can hit a threshold where they become a coffee addict. Since we know the caffeine in coffee is addicting, we know there exists a coffee addict group. Therefore, an average coffee drinker may not be representative statistically to a coffee addict group in terms of the rate of coffee consumed. The same logic could be applied for a social media addict. If social media addiction were a thing, then it could be the case that the average social media user is not representative of a social media addict. Considering it is difficult to discover a mass statistical interpretation for this hypothetical group, the most effective route of understanding a social media addict is like any other addict: through their signs and symptoms!
Signs and symptoms
Addiction is easily recognized through its signs and symptoms. This includes the signs while addicted to something, and the withdrawal symptoms when abruptly removed from it. It is typically defined as an activity or substance consumed that can be pleasurable, but when chronically done becomes compulsive and disruptive in a user’s everyday responsibilities. Usually when someone is addicted to something they either realize this themselves, or someone else informs them. So hypothetically if you’re addicted to social media, and you’re in denial, tough chance you’ll end up being studied for your symptoms? Actually, no. Surprisingly there are many people who first-hand admit to be addicted to social media and participate in studies.
One study found social media like Twitter to be harder to resist than an addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. It took a group of 205 people, and signaled them 7 times a day for 14 hours to check if they were feeling a craving or urge. About 74% of total responses back were the subject experiencing a “desire episode.” Allegedly, since social media is incredibly accessible through desktop or mobile phone. As well as its use does not have any long-term costs both monetary and physically, unlike cigarettes and alcohol, the feelings of “cost” are very low in comparison, making desires harder to resist.
Another study found that the desires to use social media is reflected in how social media essentially programs our brain. That is, how we use social media and what our brain interprets and reinforces this as. According to this Harvard study and the previous research it reviews, up to 80% of social media users use for an ego boost. They want to talk and disclose as much as they can about themselves. This process of use and self-disclose gives the user an emotional reward. In fact, the study looked at subjects’ brains using a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to see what parts of their brain lit up when disclosing things about themselves versus listening to others. When subjects talked about themselves, the same pleasure regions that light up for sex and food lit up during self-disclosure, but not when listening to others. So even though we just may think talking about ourselves on social media is fine, our brains may treat it something as rewarding as sex.
Finally, believe it or not, withdrawal symptoms have even been observed in social media “addicts”. According to another study, social media addicts retreating from social media express an array of symptoms almost characteristic of some drug withdrawals. They even surprisingly found that Twitter users coped much better than Facebook users in the negative withdrawal symptoms. Although I’ll admit the study sample size was pretty small, giving the results low amounts of power, other sources have reported withdrawal symptoms go even as far as feeling anxiety or physically ill when users are separated from their social media of choice for too long.
Pathological or fictional?
Even with all these reports of signs, symptoms and brain activity, it is still difficult to objectively conclude how addicting social media is, or if it is an addiction in the first place. Today’s future is moving towards more and more socially geared technology that interface closer to reality. This helps us become more socially equipped and productive. Some would even argue that being connected has more pros than cons, and that calling social media addicting is simply derogatory. Personally, as a student of psychology, not only do I feel I have to be very critical on this addiction claim, but also give it some allowance. I mean gambling isn’t a drug we take, but an addicting activity that is reinforced with rewarding responses. However gambling addiction has had more time to be studied than social media addiction.
The hardest thing to wrap my mind around is when do we call something addicting? When it has the potential to reach a threshold that elicits addicting behaviour? Is there a certain rate for this threshold to be reached? For example, if I get addicted to coffee after 4 cups a day for a week, but I can keep social media to a moderate few brief sign ins a day, does this make it an easier thing to be kept under moderation? Does this make one thing addictive, or even one thing more addictive than the other? The reason I think about this is because a lot of things seem to have the potential to be addictive. The real issue though is when something takes away from our everyday lives on a routine basis that it may be described as addictive. I suppose the real question we need to ask ourselves is not if social media in our use is real or fake. Heck, we’ll find others saying excessive social media use is where technology and people are going. I also don’t want to be spreading any dogmas, chanting to people “social media is addicting! the digital plague is upon us!” If anything, the most humble response I could ask you or any other person unsure of their social media use is simply: does your use reflect the qualities of addiction?
I’m glued to my screen, what do I do?
Well you’re in luck (well not really, that really sucks), because with all the hype on social media addiction, society has brought in ways to remedy you and your friends of your “sickness”. I mean we all sometimes log into Facebook way too many times a day a week. Sometimes we’re Tweeting and Facebooking, dual-wielding both a desktop and mobile access to these sites. So whether you’re life is chronically stuck to your monitor and all you can communicate in is likes or tweets. Or you’re just not getting around to do those important things on your daily list because you’re too busy updating your status. I have some options for you:
- Try using the app SelfControl—don’t be intimidated by the skull on its icon, it is just trying to spook you into facing the consequences of your gratuitous social sucking use
- Take baby steps back, set some goals, slowly reclaim the time you feel social media has stolen from you
- Deactivate or delete your social media account, you’d be surprised what a week or two could do
- Ceasing your account didn’t work? Feeling anxious and ill? Withdrawal symptoms kicking in? You might need to sign yourself into a social media addiction clinic! I’m dead serious these exist, and if social media is really ruining your life and all your attempts to quit have failed, this could be your last resort!
Like always, relax, sometimes these topics are serious or immediately concern you. Here’s a video that may make you laugh or shake on something we’re now all too familiar with…