Is social media addictive?

| December 17, 2019

Is social media addictive? Really, truly addictive? Is it so compelling and rewarding for some excessive users that it affects behaviour and choices in “real” life, like substance abuse and gambling?

This is the idea a Monash University researcher is helping develop internationally. Professor Antonio Verdejo-Garcia is from Monash’s Turner Institute For Brain and Mental Health (formerly MICCN, the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences).

He’s the deputy lead of its Addiction and Mental Health Program. This new stream of study is in collaboration with recognised researchers from universities in North America and Germany.

“It’s a very interesting area,” Professor Verdejo-Garcia says, and one that’s emerging as fast as online “social” platforms themselves.

“Drugs work by hijacking natural reward mechanisms in the brain,” he says. “If you take cocaine, you chemically overstimulate the system that processes normal rewards. Excessive SNS [social networking site] use exploits a similar mechanism, but socially.

“You’re rewarded in a social way. The need to belong is very powerful in us, and what social networks do is artificially exploit a system that has been there for a very long time to help us fulfil the need to connect.

“They’re doing it very efficiently,” he says, “which promotes repetitive behaviour, to be liked. In most addictions the consequence is you are disliked. But in this case the consequence is you’ll get rewarded in the form of likes.”

Professor Verdejo-Garcia has collaborated on a paper published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions that begins to show that social media sites can make users behave as if they’re addicted. The trouble is, excessive social networking isn’t yet an official classification in the DSM-5. (The DSM-5, under the American Psychological Association, is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the tool by which these things are measured.)

However, the DSM list is always changing as new addictions and compulsions emerge. Online gaming, for example, has been included since 2013 as a potential disorder.

“There’ll be more technology addictions in future,” Professor Verdejo-Garcia says. “But as yet we don’t know how clinically meaningful all this is, and whether it leads to trouble in their daily lives, whether it leads to significant deteriorations in health, relationships and finances, like other addictions. We don’t know. It depends to an extent on how the social media platforms evolve. There are many question marks.”

Riskier decisions

The paper found excessive online social networkers – in a small, initial study of German adults – tended to make riskier decisions. Researchers used a tool called the Iowa Gambling Task, a psychological method to test real-life decision-making.

The paper found that of the sample, excessive social media users made riskier decisions (based on picking cards for different monetary rewards) in parts of the task.

Professor Verdejo-Garcia says the finding is “very subtle” but important in finding a link, or an “analogy” between heavy social media use and better-understood, mainstream addictions.

“My interpretation so far is that people with excessive social media use will not have as many problems as the addiction population with reward and punishment, but they seem to be reward maximisers at the expense of the loss.

“Social media platforms all work under the same basic principle: a user performs an action seeking a reward. Mostly, you’re rewarded, and you repeat the action. Everything is likes, and likes are a reward.”

The lead author on the paper is Assistant Professor Dar Meshi of Michigan State University, from the university’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations. He specialises in examining how social media affects behaviour.

He told the The Washington Post this year that excessive users can feel overly socially connected to the platforms. “They’re constantly thinking about these platforms when they’re not using them,” he said. “They’re losing sleep because they’re on social media.”

It all comes down to reward, says Professor Verdejo-Garcia. “In social media, you’re rewarded a lot more than you are in real life. If you tell a friend about something you had done that was an everyday thing like eating a meal, they’re not going to be super-enthusiastic about it, but when you do it in social media you get a lot of likes from a lot of people. You’re artificially enhancing the experience of reward.”

This article was published by Lens.