Is social media really addictive?

How much social media use is too much?
19 December 2017

Interview with 

Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University


More than 2 billion of us are using social media - or at least were - in 2016, it’s 20% more now, and Facebook has the highest number of active consumers. The average user spends nearly an hour on Facebook’s suite of applications every day. But some invest considerably more time than this and may even forgo other pleasures in life to feed their habit. They may even complain that they feel physically unwell if they become separated from social media for any period of time. Might they, therefore, be considered to be addicted? Chris Smith heard from Daria Kuss from Nottingham Trent University...

Daria - We have some research that has been conducted around the world which would suggest that social media use in some instances for some excessive users can, indeed, lead to the development of addiction related symptoms. These kinds of symptoms are relatively similar to symptoms that are experienced by substance abusers. These symptoms are related to tolerance or needing to spend increased amounts of time using social media. Withdrawal symptoms, symptoms that occur when the person is trying to cut down on their social media use, so depressive symptoms, loneliness, irritability moodiness, things like that.

I think the main criterion that really distinguishes an addiction from potentially excessive or problematic use is the loss of control over one’s behaviours. What we’ve also seen in clinical context is that once individuals lose the control over the behaviour they might know that the behaviour is excessive, they want to stop it, but they actually can’t. They realise they may need to speak to somebody who may be able to help them.

Chris - Do you know who is most susceptible to this?

Daria - I think what the current research evidence base shows is that there are a number of individuals who may be more susceptible to developing problems as a consequence of their social media use. These users are very frequently females, so we find that females are so much likely to engage with social networking sites and social media potentially more excessively than males. Younger users appear to be at risk for developing addiction related problems as well, and that may have to do with the fact that they may feel the pressure to keep updating their online status. For example, they may feel the pressure to have to upload pictures on their social media platforms etc. These, I think, are the main criteria but you will also find that a number of personality traits have been linked to potentially excessive use.

We know, for example, that narcissists are much more likely to use social media in order to represent themselves in a better light. We also know that people who are particularly extroverted use social media in order to increase their already big real life social networks. Whereas introverts also appear to use social media significantly more but for other reasons in order to enhance their social networks which may, in real life or the offline world, be smaller than online.

Chris - Why do you think that people do this? Why are they making this substitution for a real life conversation with a real life friend in real time? Why do they sort of eschew their friends, their dinner conversations to pick up their phone?

Daria - I think there are a number of reasons for why people use social media and maybe in favour of engaging socially in the offline world. One of those reasons is the rewards that social media use offers in terms of the brain mechanisms involved in using social media. So every time somebody likes a post on Facebook, for example, you might get that little reward in your brain that’s telling you oh, you know, that makes me feel happy; that makes me feel content. That’s the reason why I’m going to repeat this because I’ve got that little bit of happiness; that boost of happiness through engaging with social media.

In addition to this what we will find is that you have got significantly more control over your interactions online than you have over your interactions offline. You have got the time to compile a response to somebody’s social media post that may be in line with what it is that you want to say; that maybe in line with the way you want to present yourself. Whereas in a real life conversation there is a lack of control so you really don’t necessarily have the control over how you are going to react, what you’re going to say. So I think there are number of reasons for why people feel a bit more comfortable engaging using social media rather than engaging in offline social conversations.

Chris - So what should we do about it?

Daria - When I’m being asked that question, I often say actually use social media. The reason for why I’m saying that is if you are giving yourself the time, let’s say an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to use social media you are able to get it out of your system, and that may also allow you to free up all the rest of the time to do other things. To see people face to face, to engage with your working life, your academic life, etc, without necessarily thinking oh, I need to check my phone every five minutes.

In addition to this, what I would recommend is to leave the phone to the side when  you are in an actual social offline setting, when you are having dinner with your friends and family, for example. Because research also suggests just simply having the phone on the table without actually using it is impacting how we’re behaving.

Chris - France is currently considering banning mobile phone use across the school day. It sounds like quite a good idea then based on what you’re saying?

Daria - I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly in favour of banning phones from schools altogether because we are all using technology. Technology has become an integral element of our lives and, I think, completely forbidding it isn’t the right way to go. I think what we want to do as educators, as parents, as teachers is to ensure that we advocate a use that is a conscious use. That is aware of the potential pitfalls of technology but which is, at the same time, aware of the great benefits that technology use can offer us.


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