Can social media use really become an addiction? Researchers say probably not

GLASGOW, Scotland — With millions of people spending countless hours on their phones and social media platforms, a serious question emerges. At what point does social media go from a regular habit to a full-blown addiction? Despite concerned parents thinking otherwise, new research finds frequent social media use “may not amount to the same as addiction.”

A team from the University of Strathclyde asked 100 volunteers to locate various social media apps on a smartphone’s home screen in a quick and accurate manner while ignoring all other apps. The participants varied in terms of social media use; some were online everyday and others not as much.

Can’t keep their eyes off social media?

The purpose of this experiment was to ascertain the level of “attention bias” among frequent social media users. In other words, would people who spend more time on social media have their eyes drawn to the app icons faster than others?

Researchers note that attention bias is a common marker of addiction. Researchers also investigated if any biases had a connection to scores which measure social media engagement and addiction.

“Social media use has become a ubiquitous part of society, with 3.8 billion users worldwide. While research has shown that there are positive aspects to social media engagement, such as feelings of social connectedness and wellbeing, much of the focus has been on the negative mental health outcomes which are associated with excessive use, such as higher levels of depression and anxiety,” says researcher Dr. David Robertson in a university release.

“The evidence to support such negative associations is mixed but there is also a growing debate as to whether excessive levels of social media use should become a clinically defined addictive behavior,” the lecturer in psychology at Strathclyde adds.

No bias towards social apps?

Results show none of the participants’ eyes appeared to move towards social media icons any more than any other app. Attention also didn’t seem to correlate with any self-reported or measurable levels of addiction.

“We did not find evidence of attentional bias. People who frequently checked and posted their social media accounts were no more likely to have their attention drawn to the icon of a social media app than those who check and post less often,” Dr. Robertson concludes.

“Much more research is required into the effects of social media use, both positive and negative, before definitive conclusions can be reached about the psychological effects of engagement with these platforms. Our research indicates that frequent social media use may not, at present, necessarily fit into traditional addiction frameworks.”

The study appears in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.