Is social media addictive?

There is growing evidence from scientific studies that individuals can become addicted to using social networking sites, such as Facebook. They may experience symptoms that are...
17 December 2017


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There is growing evidence from scientific studies that individuals can become addicted to using social networking sites, such as Facebook. They may experience symptoms that are traditionally seen in people who become addicted to substances, such as alcohol and nicotine. Daria Kuss explains what her research into online addiction is revealing...

The term "social media" emcompasses the possibilities ushered in by "web 2.0" of creating, sharing and working together on online content. This means social media comprises applications as varied as weblogs, social networking sites, video-sharing platforms and online games. Often when we talk about social media, what we mean are social networking sites, and these are “virtual communities where users can create individual public profiles, interact with real-life friends, and meet other people based on shared interests”.

To date, the most popular social networking site is Facebook with over 1700 million active subscribers in 2016, and user numbers growing by almost 20% every year. However, we find differences in the uptake of social networking sites across generations, as picture-sharing sites such as Instagram and Snapchat appear to be particularly popular among the younger generation. Generation Y(outh) have appropriated social media not necessarily as something they use, but as a way they are and relate to each other. Media scholar Danah Boyd (2004) refers to this new way of being in the following way: “It’s no longer about on or off really. It’s about living in a world where being networked to people and information wherever and whenever you need it is just assumed”. We are always on, conveniently connected to our social networks on the go via our smartphones. In this way, mobile technologies and social media can be considered extensions of man (Kuss, 2017). The influential philosopher Marshall McLuhan discussed the idea of media as extensions of man already in the 1960s. When talking to the participants in my studies on smartphone use, they mention their smartphone is like another limb and that they’ve got their lives in their phones. With the ubiquity and pervasiveness of modern technologies, viewing social media and mobile technologies as extensions of ourselves appears to be more appropriate today than ever before.

Social media: Connecting people

For us global citizens who live in different countries and keep in touch with family and friends across the world anytime anywhere, social media offers great opportunities. For instance, Internations is an online (and offline) community for expatriates and global minds, and is considered the leading network and guide for people who live away from their home countries, including representations in 390 cities worldwide. In a day and age where global citizenship is becoming the norm, social media appear more important than ever in connecting people. It’s no wonder then that a social media site like Internations is very successful in bridging the gap between online and offline social interaction. Using social media for communication, there are no restrictions of geography and time of day which we typically have in our offline social interactions. In this way, social media can be considered a boon for modern humanity.

What kinds of problems can occur through social media?

Through many years of studying social media use, I have found that people can experience several problems through their social media use, particularly if they spend a lot of time using social media. There is growing evidence from scientific studies that individuals can become addicted to using social networking sites, such as Facebook. They may experience symptoms that are traditionally seen in people who become addicted to substances, such as alcohol and nicotine. They experience a preoccupation with their social media use, using social media changes how they feel, they may need to spend increasing amounts of time using social media and feel irritable and anxious when they stop using social media. Crucially, they lose control over their behaviours and may sacrifice other pastime activities and even relationships for the sake of using social media.

Facebook addiction is only one example of an addiction to using social media. There are other social networking sites that can become problematic for a small number of excessive users. For example, our research (Donnelly & Kuss, 2016) showed that the photo sharing site Instagram use was more likely connected to depressive feelings and addictive symptoms than using Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. Instagram allows users to follow celebrities and public figures who lead more privileged lives. In comparison, ordinary Instagram users’ lives may pale in comparison. This can lead to upward social comparisons, and lead to lower self-esteem, dissatisfaction, and feelings of depression, which people may try to cope with by continued and addictive use of this site, exacerbating the problems.

Addiction to using social media arguably occurs in only a very small minority of high-frequency and excessive users. For those users, however, these behaviours can have significant and detrimental impacts on their lives. These can include loneliness, depression, decreased face-to-face communication skills, neglecting relationships outside of the online networks, and issues in academic achievement and work performance (Kuss & Griffiths, 2017). Given the possible negative consequences of excessive social media use, social media can be considered a bane for modern humanity.

What can we do to avoid these problems?

Engage with others offline, too. Offline contact allows us to get our brains in sync with others, which is important for our mental health and wellbeing. The rewards that we perceive when we engage with family and friends outside of social media are significantly stronger and longer lasting than those that we receive online. The reward systems involved in face-to-face social interactions are deeply wired into our brains and our biology as humans. When we interact in physical (rather than online) social environments, the trust hormone oxytocin is released through touch. Oxytocin eliminates fear and it encourages social bonding, and therefore makes it central to the process of creating and strengthening relationships. We need face-to-face interaction and physical contact in order to develop the capacity for empathy and sharing emotional states with another person, which has been termed “limbic resonance”.

This also explains why people are more likely to behave antisocially in online contexts in comparison to offline environments. Phenomena such as online bullying, online stalking and identity theft can be explained by the lack of the vital cues that make us create emotional bonds with one another offline. Online, important cues such as facial expressions, posture and tone of voice are lacking from communication, severely limiting empathy. Therefore, the main thing to do for us to avoid problems due to excessive social media use is to bridge the gap between the online and offline social worlds.

Social media should not become a substitute for offline interactions. Let’s not delve on whether social media are a boon or bane for society. Instead, let’s appropriate social media and use it as an extension of ourselves to reach out to others, and not as a replacement for our physical offline relationships...


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