November 21, 2018
Is Social Media Addiction Real?
Expert Q&A

Is Social Media Addiction Real?

by Jeanine Barone  

Ofir TurelOfir Turel, PhD, is a professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University, Fullerton, where his research interests include behavioral and managerial facets of technology use and abuse. He has published numerous studies on how individuals become excessive users of technologies, how this can be measured, and the ways these “addictions” affect the social, family, and work life of individuals.

We spoke with Dr. Turel about whether it’s possible to become addicted to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Let’s first get the semantics out of the way. We hear a lot about “addiction” to mobile devices and social media platforms. But can a person really become addicted to these things in the clinical sense?

This is a charged question because there is disagreement, in general, in the medical community in terms of what is addiction—or, as the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) more often calls it, an addictive disorder. Many researchers in my field avoid the word “addiction” because it’s a controversial term; other papers, including mine, have used the term when describing excessive use of social media for the sake of simplicity. But it may be more appropriate, until agreement is reached in the research field, to talk about addiction-like symptoms, excessive use, or “addiction” with quotation marks.

This is partly because what we’ve observed may not really be an addiction in the clinical sense. It is excessive use of social media that results in symptoms that resemble, to some extent, what we would observe in typical substance addictions or behavioral addictions: for example, the behavior conflicting with other tasks, limited control over the behavior, negative mood when the behavior is prevented, and strong urges to constantly perform the behavior. But the severity of consequences may differ from what we see in other addictions; excessively using social media does not often result in the same magnitude of adverse outcomes that we see in, say, cocaine addicts. So while excessive use certainly impairs some aspects of social, personal, and professional life, it isn’t clear if and when such impairments qualify as clinically significant.

Is it possible to quantify what amount of social media use is excessive? Or does it vary?

​It varies from one person to another. If you use social media for 10 to 12 hours a day for work purposes, for example, it’s not a bad thing. “Too much” from a clinical standpoint is defined not by the actual amount of use but by the problems it creates. Did you fail at school because you were busy posting and checking social media instead of concentrating in class? Is it causing you to not be able to sleep or concentrate at work? Are you gaining weight because of the amount of time you’re spending on social media rather than doing other things? An accumulation of such negative consequences signals that you’ve crossed the line from healthy use to unhealthy use.

Are some people more likely than others to become “addicted” to social media?

In the research community, we don’t have exact answers. We don’t have markers, so that if you had this marker at age five, you would likely become “addicted” to social media. But there are certain predisposing conditions that increase the chances of people becoming “addicted” to social media, or of developing addictions in general. Some have to do with the impulsive center in the brain, the system that governs rewards—or, more specifically, creates a motivation to consume things that generate rewards.

For instance, some people have a gene variant that reduces the number of receptors for dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivating behavior by producing feelings of pleasure and euphoria. The brain is trained to want more dopamine and to prefer behaviors that produce more of it over those that produce less. People who have fewer dopamine receptors will need more dopamine to generate the same level of enjoyment. So that’s one condition under which a person may be more likely to become “addicted.”

There’s also some correlation with certain personality traits, as well as with loneliness. People who are more neurotic, for example, have a higher likelihood of becoming excessive users of social media, as do people who report higher levels of loneliness.

Does it also work the other way—that is, can being “addicted” to social media lead to psychological problems?

​We don’t know exactly, but there are comorbidities between so-called social media “addiction” and other psychiatric disorders. The classic one is depression. There are several potential scenarios here. It could be that people who are depressed look for stronger social connections, and so they find themselves excessively engaging with online activities. Or it could work the other way around: You find yourself “addicted” to social media, observe how you lose control over its use, experience deterioration in your social life and work performance, and that can exacerbate depression symptoms.

And then there is the third explanation: There could be some underlying neural deficiency that can cause both of them simultaneously. This is where the reward system in the brain comes in. For example, if you have deficient reward management or reward generation in the brain, that could lead to depression or manifest in depression symptoms, and also manifest in addictive-type behaviors.

Have researchers found changes in the brain associated with social media “addiction”?

Yes, and this is very much a focus of my own research. At the basic level, there are changes in brain activity in people who present with stronger symptoms of “addiction” to social media. They have a much stronger response of the brain’s reward system, specifically in what’s called the amygdala-striatal system, for cues that involve social media. We did a study where we showed social media users various traffic signs interspersed with pictures related to social media, such as the Facebook logo or the “Like” button. In one task, we asked the subjects to press the button when they saw pictures related to social media but not when they saw the road signs; in the other we asked them to reverse the order, so they pressed the button when they saw road signs but not when they saw social media cues.

We found that people made more mistakes when they had to inhibit themselves from pressing the button when they saw social media cues. That is, they pressed the button even when they weren’t supposed to. We also found that the response time to Facebook stimuli was significantly faster than to the street signs. That’s a pretty scary thing when you think about it. That means if you get a Facebook notification while driving at the same time you see a stop sign, you’re going to respond much faster to the Facebook notification than to the stop sign.

We were scanning the subjects’ brains during this experiment, and we saw stronger activation in the amygdala-striatal system among those who identified themselves (via a survey) as having more social media “addiction” symptoms. In other words, the more excessive a person’s social media use, the stronger the activation of this brain system in response to social media cues. And this is what has been observed in other addictions, such as to substances, gambling, and sex.

​In another set of studies, we observed smaller gray matter volume (and therefore fewer neurons) in the amygdala-striatal systems of people who have social media addiction symptoms versus those who don’t. This is what has been observed in cocaine addicts, meth users, heavy alcohol drinkers, etc. But what we don’t know is if the differences in the brain were there before the social media addiction symptoms began. In other words, we cannot determine if the excessive use of social media has led to these changes or whether underlying brain differences have manifested in excessive social media use is some people.

​In another study we saw some differences in the insular cortex, a part of the brain that is also involved in addictive disorders. This region takes stimuli in the body and translates them into difficult-to-control urges. For example, when you really have to urinate, you can’t really concentrate on anything else, so it preoccupies you until you can relieve the urge. You see changes in this brain region in addictions. We found that people who have stronger social media “addiction” symptoms have smaller gray matter volume in this region and, consequently, they discount future gains and punishments in favor of anything that’s immediate. In other words, they prefer the immediate rewards of using social media and ignore the long-term consequences. Other studies have found this as well.

The last piece of the puzzle is white matter, the fibers that connect brain regions. To address this, we analyzed the connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. People who presented with social media “addiction” symptoms had less efficient connectivity between the left and right hemispheres, which is also common in other addictions. When the left brain and right brain cannot communicate effectively, that disrupts decision-making, which is at the root of addictions.

The classic example of how all of these brain differences might manifest is using Facebook while driving. In one of our studies, 40 percent of students we surveyed reported using Facebook while driving in the last week; 5 percent reported doing this every time they drive. These are pretty scary numbers. How does this happen? It happens because these individuals want the reward (“dopamine hit”) as a result of checking social media or want to avoid the pain of not checking social media so badly that they ignore the potential consequences of this behavior: dying, getting injured, injuring others.

What are some solutions for people who find that they are using social media excessively?

​The obvious one, though not always that easy, is to put the phone away. For example, when I work in my second-floor office, I have my phone on the first floor. So, I’m trying to be away from it.

Another, less-obvious solution is to check your usage logs on Facebook. In one of my studies, we asked people to download their activity log from Facebook from the previous week. We summarized their activities—for example, this is how many times you posted, this is how many videos you watched, this is how many “likes” you posted, and so forth—and shared the summary with them. The control group was not exposed to this information. The people who were exposed to their use levels were shocked. We then let them use Facebook naturally the next week, and asked them again for the log of their activity. We found that those who were exposed to their user information naturally reduced their use of Facebook over the next week. There was a significantly smaller reduction in the control group.

What these data suggest is that many people may be surprised when they realize how much time they spent, and that will motivate them to try to control their use. For people with iPhones, Apple has also begun making this information available to users (beginning with iOS 12).

Third, don’t use social media apps on your cell phone. They create a shortcut to easily see a notification and then easily access the sites without even thinking about it. This shortcut helps us act impulsively. Instead of using the app, log into your account using your browser on the smart phone (or even better—access social media only from your computer). Forcing people to think twice or do something before they use the site can help them reduce impulsive use by having time to reflect on the immediate need for using social media and to exercise self-control as needed.

Fourth, you can change your phone’s display setting to grayscale so there are no colors. (I tried this myself and it’s quite nice.) The social media apps use colors for new message notification that promote immediate action, namely red. So if you are still using the apps, the notifications will now come up in gray, which slightly reduces the automatic drive to click on them.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the editorial board at BerkeleyWellness.com.

Also see Are Mobile Devices Ruining Our Eyes?