New Study Suggests Excessive Social Media Use Is Comparable to Drug Addiction

Does Excessive Social Media Use Cause the Same Impairment as Drug Addiction?

In today’s society, the amount of time that people spend on social media is constantly increasing. In fact, the average user now spends approximately 136 minutes – over 2 hours – on social networking sites each and every day. According to a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, not only does time spent on social media platforms waste countless hours of the day, excessive use is also starting to affect peoples’ decision making abilities and make them more likely engage in “risky behaviors.”

Lead author of the study, Dar Meshi, likens the connection between heavy social media use and impaired, risky decision making to the same impaired decisiveness found in the brains of people with substance use disorders. Similar to drug addicts, excessive social networking site (SNS) users display a preoccupation with social media platforms when they are not using them, mood modification when they access these sites, and tolerance to the social rewards obtained on these sites from interactions. These excessive SNS users also experience conflict with others because of their use, and when attempting to quit, they display withdrawal symptoms and often relapse. Most importantly, individuals with substance use and behavioral addictions have difficulty making value-based decisions.

Despite these obvious similarities, the topic of whether excessive social media use should be indefinitely categorized as an “addiction” is hotly debated. Social media addiction is currently not included as an addiction in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Decision making is oftentimes compromised in individuals with substance use disorders. They sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcomes. But no one previously looked at this behavior as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers.

- Dar Meshi, Lead Study Author and Assistant Professor at Michigan State University

This study is the first to examine the relationship between social media use and risky decision making capabilities.

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The Study Results

Meshi and his co-authors asked 71 participants to take the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS) questionnaire to measure their psychologic dependence on Facebook. The survey included questions about their preoccupation with the social media platform, their feelings when unable to use it, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and the impact that the site has had on their job or studies.

The researchers then had the participants perform 100 trails of the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), which is a common exercise used by psychologists to measure decision-making. To successfully complete the task, users must identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to choose the best possible deck. Participants of the study were presented with four virtual decks of cards on a computer, and were told that each deck holds cards that will either reward or penalize them in the form of game money. The goal of the task is to win as much money as possible by choosing “good decks” which reward the player, rather than “bad decks” that contain more penalizing cards.

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Meshi and his colleagues found a direct correlation between how badly the participants did in the task to how excessively they used social media. The worse people performed by choosing from bad decks, the more excessive their social media use. The better individuals did in the task, the less their social media use. These results demonstrate that more severe social media use is associated with worse decision making skills and, particularly, more risky decision making. People who abuse drugs like opioids, cocaine, and meth, also have similar outcomes on the Iowa Gambling Task as those addicted to social media, showing that both addictions cause the same deficiency in decision making.

Around one-third of humans on the planet are using social media and some of these people are displaying maladaptive, excessive use of these sites. Hopefully our findings will hopefully motivate the field to take social media overuse seriously.

- Dar Meshi, Lead Study Author and Assistant Professor at Michigan State University

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Meshi hopes these results will inspire further studies into the way that excessive social media use affects the brain and decision making to determine whether social media use should be considered an addiction.

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