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Is social media addictive? Breakthrough study reveals the truth

[Nov. 11, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Social media is a ubiquitous presence in our lives, shaping the way we communicate, share, and interact with the world. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Social media is a ubiquitous presence in our lives, shaping the way we communicate, share, and interact with the world. However, the impact of this digital realm on our well-being has long been a subject of intense debate among behavioral researchers.

While the consensus remains that social media can be harmful, the crux of the matter revolves around how this harm is precisely defined and whether any redeeming aspects of social media use exist. At the heart of this academic discourse lies a fundamental question: Can a person become addicted to social media?


The quest for a definitive answer to this question holds significant implications, not only for the vast landscape of the internet but also for policy considerations, notably in the context of a recent lawsuit against Meta, formerly known as Facebook. Moreover, it extends its influence to individuals who grapple with or treat more conventional forms of addiction.

The pursuit of clarity in this matter has given rise to a discordance of findings, as defined by Niklas Ihssen, an associate professor of psychology at Durham University in the United Kingdom. Some studies advocate the benefits of abstaining from social media, asserting that it can enhance mood and overall well-being.


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Conversely, others contend that stepping away from the screens can evoke profound withdrawal symptoms akin to those experienced in chemical addiction. This incongruity has led to a palpable tension between these two contrasting strands of research, as Ihssen aptly puts it.

In an attempt to bridge this chasm of conflicting evidence, a groundbreaking study, spearheaded by Michael Wadsley, a postgraduate student under Ihssen's tutelage, has emerged and was published in the journal PLOS ONE. This study endeavors to shed light on the conundrum surrounding social media addiction by employing a novel approach.


Wadsley and Ihssen embarked on a 15-day journey with 51 university students, delving deep into the intricacies of their social media habits. During this period, participants were directed to abstain from accessing popular social networking sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, for a week. Following this self-imposed hiatus, the participants were subjected to final surveys and exercises designed to assess their experiences. Notably, roughly one-third of the participants exhibited social media behaviors classified as problematic or detrimental to their daily functioning, according to the prevailing criteria for evaluating such conduct.

Day-by-day changes in screen times (mins) for SNS use and iPhone use. The abstinence intervention began midway through day 4 and ended midway through day 11. (CREDIT: PLOS ONE)

To investigate the presence of withdrawal symptoms resembling those associated with substance use disorders, such as relapses and increased consumption following periods of abstinence, Wadsley and Ihssen meticulously analyzed the participants' responses. Intriguingly, despite 87% of the participants failing to completely abstain from social media, their usage time had plummeted to an average of just 30 minutes per day – a stark contrast to the three to four hours spent daily before the intervention.


Ihssen explains, "If there's something like withdrawal, we would expect those cravings to go up after a while." However, the anticipated surge in cravings, reminiscent of the chemical effects of withdrawal, was conspicuously absent, both in terms of usage time and the results of a test gauging participants' reactions upon seeing social media app icons.

Mean daily screen times (mins) at each phase of the experiment for SNS use and iPhone use. (CREDIT: PLOS ONE)

Nonetheless, this study, on its own, does not offer a conclusive answer to the question of whether social media is inherently addictive. David Zendle, a lecturer at the University of York in the UK, emphasizes the importance of establishing a consensus on this matter through the collaborative efforts of independent research teams utilizing shared metrics, methodologies, and definitions. He highlights the bewildering array of theories and models employed across 55 papers on social media addiction in a 2021 study, illustrating the urgency of unifying the research landscape.


The Perilous Gray Zone

Zendle underscores the perilous nature of the current state of uncertainty. If social media is inaccurately categorized as addictive, individuals may be subjected to treatments that are ill-suited to their needs, causing lasting harm. Moreover, it could undermine the recognition of the gravity of genuine addictions. Conversely, if social media does indeed possess addictive qualities on par with illicit drugs, and science fails to detect it, a colossal threat to public health could proliferate unchecked.

Mean self-report ratings of mood across the three experiment phases. Error bars represent +/- 1 SE mean. (CREDIT: PLOS ONE)

Zendle advocates for large-scale, transformative studies that offer a high degree of certainty. He asserts, "What we need are radical, gigantic studies, to the point where when you see nothing going on, you are extremely confident that nothing really is going on."


The Evolving Nature of Behavioral Addictions

Part of the challenge in discerning whether problematic social media use qualifies as an addiction is rooted in the relatively recent recognition of behavioral addictions. Gambling addiction stands as the lone behavioral disorder officially recognized by diagnostic criteria.

Mean VAAST RTs for each condition at pre- and post-intervention. Error bars represent +/- 1 SE mean. (CREDIT: PLOS ONE)

The groundbreaking realization that a stimulus other than a chemical substance could induce effects akin to those in the brain catalyzed the exploration of behavioral addictions. As Zendle succinctly puts it, "That transposition unlocked the world of behavioral addictions." This breakthrough has prompted researchers to question where else such transpositions might be enlightening.


Parallels with Video Game Research

To comprehend the long-term ramifications of this ongoing research conundrum, one can draw parallels with the contentious debate surrounding the potential harm of video game violence. Zendle likens this debate to a quagmire of "enormously mixed evidence."

Descriptive stats for estimated VAAST time, actual VAAST time and time distortion measured in minutes. (CREDIT: PLOS ONE)

As a result of inconsistent and sometimes unscrupulous research practices, scientists struggle to provide meaningful guidance to psychologists, lawmakers, and game designers. The absence of a consistent truth has rendered the discourse cacophonous and lacking in clarity.


The Nuanced Findings of Wadsley and Ihssen's Study

Wadsley and Ihssen's study contributes to this ongoing discourse by presenting a balanced perspective. Their research challenges the addiction theory by not only countering it but also by failing to identify the unequivocally positive effects on mood that previous studies have attributed to social media breaks or "digital detoxes."

Instead, their results reveal a diverse range of mood effects, aligning more closely with the variable outcomes observed across research on this topic. Rather than definitively supporting either a negative or positive impact on mood, this null finding suggests that the prevailing belief that social media is akin to an addictive substance may not align with the complex reality of social media use.

Ihssen underscores the multifaceted nature of social media use, cautioning against over-pathologizing these behaviors. While excessive use can indeed lead to issues, it is crucial to approach this matter with nuance and avoid rushing to label it as an addiction.

The question of whether social media is addictive remains a subject of intense scrutiny within the scientific community. While a myriad of studies and theories continue to surface, the evidence remains inconclusive. The study conducted by Michael Wadsley and Niklas Ihssen brings us one step closer to understanding the complex relationship between social media use and potential addiction. However, the lack of consensus among researchers and the ever-evolving nature of behavioral addictions remind us that this journey is far from over.


As we navigate the digital landscape and its impact on our lives, it is essential to approach the topic of social media addiction with caution, recognizing the need for rigorous and extensive research. In the absence of definitive evidence, we must remain vigilant in our quest to unravel the enigma of social media addiction, ensuring that our conclusions are grounded in sound science and informed by a nuanced understanding of human behavior in the digital age.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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