Excessive social media use similar to drug addiction

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New research has found a connection between social media use and risky decision-making often seen in those with substance addictions.
New research has found a connection between social media use and risky decision-making often seen in those with substance addictions.

Excessive social media use is comparable to a drug addiction, according to new research from Michigan State University, in the US. It shows a connection between social media use and risky decision-making, which is common in people with substance addictions.

The findings, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, show online social networking sites like Facebook provide users with "myriad social rewards". These social rewards bring users back to social networking sites repeatedly, "with some users displaying maladaptive, excessive social media use". The study found that symptoms of this excessive social media use are similar to symptoms of substance use and behavioural addictive disorders.

According to Dar Meshi, lead author and assistant professor at Michigan State University, around one-third of people on the planet are using social media, and some of these people are displaying excessive use tendencies towards social media sites. He said he hopes the university's findings will "motivate the field to take social media overuse seriously".

"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," Meshi said in a post about the study on the university's Web site.

"But no one previously looked at this behaviour as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers. While we didn't test for the cause of poor decision-making, we tested for its correlation with problematic social media use."

Meshi and his co-authors had over 70 participants take a survey that measured their psychological dependence on Facebook. Questions on the survey asked about users' preoccupation with the platform, their feelings when unable to use it, attempts to quit and the impact that Facebook has had on their job or studies.

The participants then had to do the Iowa Gambling Task, an exercise often used by psychologists to simulate real-life decision-making. To successfully complete the task, users identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to choose the best possible deck. The participants performed 100 trials of the Iowa Gambling Task to assess their value-based decision-making.

Meshi and his colleagues found that, by the end of the gambling task, the worse people performed by choosing from bad decks, the more excessive their social media use. However, the better they performed in the task, the less their social media use. This result corresponded to results with substance abusers.

"People who abuse opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, among others, have similar outcomes on the Iowa Gambling Task, thus showing the same deficiency in decision-making."

The researchers believe their results demonstrate that more severe, excessive social media use is associated with more deficient value-based decision-making, in particular, risky decision-making. This result further supports a parallel between individuals with problematic, excessive social networking site use and individuals with substance use and behavioural addictive disorders.

Meshi said with so many people around the world using social media, it is critical to be able to understand its use.

"I believe that social media has tremendous benefits for individuals, but there's also a dark side when people can't pull themselves away. We need to better understand this drive so we can determine if excessive social media use should be considered an addiction," Meshi added.

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