Social media is one of the precious presents of the digital age. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, and a host of others have radically changed the way we connect and communicate. Despite their immense benefits, they do not come without their shortcomings. Among the numerous ills of social media is its potentially addictive effect. Yes, you heard that right. Social media has been tipped to have the same effect as cigarettes and gambling. But is social media addiction really a thing?
What is addiction?
The syndrome model of addiction appears to be the current working hypothesis among many psychologists and clinicians. This model presents addiction disorder as a complex problem that could have multiple presentations. The disorder occurs whenever an individual becomes compulsively attached to a substance or behavior despite harmful consequences. With the syndrome model of addiction, it is highly plausible that some people may be addicted to social media.
Viewing social media through the lens of addiction
For some time now, there have been numerous debates about the negative impact of social media on mental health. Still, we are yet to have any official medical recognition of social media addiction as a disease or disorder.
There is little argument that what social media does to us is beyond normal or natural, just like other presentations of addiction. This is especially true for heavy users. In a recent survey, about 61% of Facebook users admitted feeling the need to check their Facebook feed at least once every day. If anything, this is a sign of compulsion.
The term ‘social media reversion’ was famously coined by Cornell Information Science, following their research into how hard it is for people to quit social media, even when they want to. It describes social media relapse- a common feature of addictive disorder. Many people find themselves deleting their Facebook account only to go back again after a very short time. As described by travel video blogger, Jax Austin, Facebook is “like that crazy ex that never forgets about you.”
On taking a closer look at social media platforms, we’ll arrive that they are set up to make us addicts. The UX design employed by the platforms has been likened to a “maze of dark patterns and cues borrowed from the world of gambling.” To them, users are an infinite source of data and it is in their interest that we never log out. Unfortunately, millions of people might have fallen into this trap, consciously or unconsciously.
What does research say?
Numerous studies have reported a correlation between high social media use and poor mental health. Mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, feelings of loneliness and even suicidal thoughts appear commonplace among those who use social media excessively (although the term ‘excessively’ is largely subjective).
Interestingly, some researchers have shown not just correlation but causation, as exemplified by two separate studies from the University of Pennsylvania and York University, Canada. For those who may struggle to understand, causation is only a step above correlation. While correlation implies that two variables occur together, causation implies the existence of one variable brought about the other.
Why does the classification matter?
In the wake of more calls for the inclusion of social media addiction as one of the presentations of addictive disorder, it’s natural to wonder why the classification matters so much. For one thing, an official classification means we would all become more conscious and deliberate about social media use. The recent WHO classification of gaming addiction as a disorder provides a workable precedence.
Researchers and clinicians would also be motivated to work more around the subject in the hopes of developing ways of helping addicts. On their own part, governments would, perhaps, respond better to calls that these platforms should be perhaps, more regulated. Anything that affects the mental health of the population should not be handled with levity.
Whatever we do, it’s important to understand that social media has come to stay. Any attempt to abandon, restrict or censor these platforms is likely to turn out counterproductive. Our main focus should be on living with it and protecting ourselves from getting ‘addicted’.
Eric P.S. et al (2015). Missing Photos, Suffering Withdrawal, or Finding Freedom? How Experiences of Social Media Non-Use Influence the Likelihood of Reversion. Social Media + Society. Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305115614851
Roisin Kiberd (2019). Social media addiction is not natural or normal but is it really a disease? The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/19/social-media-facebook-addiction-not-natural-normal-disease
Hogue J.V., Mills J.S. (2019). The effects of active social media engagement with peers on body image in young women. Body Image, Volume 28. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S174014451730517X#!
Hunt M.G. et al (2018). No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology , December 2018. Available at https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751