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Does Social Media Addiction Really Exist?

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It seems there is a lot of media focus at the moment on the sensationalisation of the ‘impact of social media’ (without rigorous and robust research to support these claims), how screens and the apps are ‘addictive’ (again using layman terms rather than an academic perspective). However, I take a very different view of this topic. Does social media addiction really exist? 

I see smartphones, laptops and any ‘internet-ready device’ as a tool and a medium, intertwined and inseparable. This means we use it to help us achieve something, in the same way we use a kettle to boil water. Furthermore, we can also use it to create a connection with someone, like having a conversation. Therefore these devices have an overlapping function and form – and this is where the research and media can be at loggerheads.

For example terms like ‘Facebook addiction’ are far more complicated than first appears. This seems to be a term devoted to people who use Facebook a lot. What would need to be explored to define this as an addiction in the true sense of the word is the same motivational factors as a person who is addicted to substances. We would need to explore the negative consequences that result from this behaviour.

What we do know is that some people are more likely to check their Facebook account more often than other people for a large number of varying reasons, such as accessibility (internet or busyness), availability, whether they access on a laptop or smartphone and even so much as boredom levels (such as those days in the office when there is a gap in the activity levels), however these are only a few examples.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons a person may check Facebook numerous times a day. They range from wanting, needing, and hoping for connection with others. This could be about a supportive network. This could be about flirting, dating, or sharing an event such as a holiday, and so on (either one you have been to, or are going to), with those people whom you will/have attended with, perhaps even discussions about new productivity items for your workplace. The list goes on.

Yet, in these instances the connection is about connection with other human beings who are (most likely) not in the same vicinity or room as you. It means you can connect with your friends, family. and colleagues in short interactions, rather like an email exchange or phone call during the day/night. We called this progress when the telephone was invented? However, I’m not so sure that I have really read much research around the addictive nature of phone calls, or perhaps emails and good old fashioned letters such as pen pals.

This brings me to my view about the word ‘addictive’ when relating to anything digital. I see that this is about attachment (in the sense of the theory) and also is about relationships through cyberspace. As far as I know we don’t tell our children to come in from playing because they’re addicted to their friends? We might suggest that certain friendships are unhealthy or unhelpful for them, but we don’t use these terms associated with, often the same relationship behaviours carried out through social media.

So what would an addictive behaviour be or mean in relation to social media or devices? Again this would need a number of really rigorous pieces of research because I suggest its far more complicated that the actual time spent ‘physically’ on the device. There is a fair amount of research appearing in regards to behaviours where people have been classified as addicted due to their lack of interaction with real life people, yet I consider the motivation behind this. Perhaps they are too shy, withdrawn, depressed, or have anxieties about people, or have a behavioural difficulty that makes real life interactions uncomfortable?

Some time ago the link between violent media (TV shows at the time) attempted to suggest that violent TV shows would result in violent behaviours in those who watched, due to a number of factors (Social learning theory would suggest this was we ‘copy’ other behaviours), yet we are still struggling to say that this is a direct cause effect link. Recently there has been further research around the violent computer games showing less of a cause-effect link.

What would an addictive behaviour be or mean in relation to social media or devices?

The main reason for this is human beings have a brain that is wired for connection, learns from previous behaviours, can predict and alter new behaviours, and also likes it when we are both rewarded and motivated. We can choose.

I’m suggesting the ‘addictive’ behaviours of anything smartphone-related could be considered to be an actual addiction, when you use the definition from Gabor Mate which is:

Addiction is any behaviour where a person craves and finds temporary relief in something, but suffers negative consequences as a result of and is unable to to give up, despite those negative consequences.

If checking your Facebook account hundred times a day causes you negative consequences and you don’t stop this behaviour then by this definition you are addicted, however if you check your account hundred times a day and do not have negative consequences then you would not be considered addicted. It’s all dependent upon the consequences, how they affect you and your life (and perhaps brain activity or focus).

How do we qualitatively or quantitatively measure this without the high degree of variables giving us subjective and varying answers? Technically, I think this is where the research can help, yet we are only in the first 10 years of social media as a construct and concept. We have much to observe and measure before we really can say this causes that (highly unlikely), or as I suspect, this may result in this or that behaviour in future.

Which brings me onto terms such as digital dementia, digital overload and digital outsourcing, digital amnesia; vague yet possibly our new domain of social and media sensationalisation? I need to research more before commenting on these terms. Watch this space for that in the future.

Catherine Knibbs is an author, researcher and trauma therapist. She holds a dual MSc in Child and Adult Integrative Psychotherapy at Newman University.

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