Social media addiction: is it real, or just hype?

We all are aware of the addictive qualities of alcohol, tobacco and certain illicit drugs. But would you place social media in the same category?


Question:  when was the last time you left your home without your mobile phone? Have you ever been well on your way to your destination, realised that you have forgotten your phone at home, and: (i) decided right away to turn back to get it; (ii) begged someone to bring it to you as soon as possible; or (iii) returned home during the course of the day to collect it yourself?

And what about social media? Whenever you have some free time, are you scrolling through your Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter feeds? Are you constantly thinking of what you can post (a selfie, or your lunch perhaps)?

In reading the above, a common thought might be along the lines of rolling your eyes and saying ‘how pathetic!’, but the sad truth is that so many of us – if we are honest – are guilty of obsessing over our smartphone and social media. Although such behaviour is known and even accepted, in the last three months or so, there has been a growing concern in the press about social media addition, especially in children.

Not yet a recognised medical condition

To be clear, social media addiction is not a medically-recognised disease or disorder. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an addiction is defined as a

compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.

Currently, social media addiction has not yet been studied sufficiently to determine whether or not it satisfies the criteria to be a medically-diagnosed condition. However, and although it might seem a bit far-fetched, it is interesting to note that as of January 2018, (video) gaming addiction has been recognised and classified as a mental health disorder (Source:  BBC).

For adults, while there is concern about addiction, the greater focus, and concern, is with respect to children, teenagers and young adults. Increasingly, social media interaction is replacing face-to-face engagement, resulting in, among other things, a lack of social skills, along with greater isolation and reliance on social networks to fill the void.

Further, and although it is still early days, in a study published in late 2017, which sought to examine the recent rise in depression and suicide in teenagers in the United States, found

…a tight relationship between mental health issues and a rise in “new media screen activities.” About 48% of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones—a lot of time by any measure—had thought about suicide or made plans for it, vs. 28% of those who spent only one hour per day on their phones. No other variables—like household financial issues, homework, or school pressure—could account for the rise in mental health issues over that time.

(Source:  Forbes)

Addiction versus revenue generation

Finally, it is also important to highlight the attitude of the social media platforms themselves, such as Facebook, which have designed and continually update their platforms to encourage even longer and more frequent interaction by their users.  The time users spend on a platform is a demonstration of its popularity, which the platform owner can leverage to generate revenue, such as through advertising.  Hence, we should not expect the Facebooks of the world, for example, to make their platforms less engaging, so that we use them less.


Image credit:  Pixabay (Pexels)

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