As digital devices grow ever more omnipresent, there is more and more concern that people are becoming addicted to them. It is not a new worry. Television has long been reputed to have a similar addictive character, even though one could not take a TV with them everywhere. Video games provoked similar worries, increasingly so as they moved from large arcade kiosks to small consoles attached to the TV and then to downloads on computers and handheld devices. Computers were their own concern, from desktops to laptops to tablets.
Now one can carry a device no bigger than a deck of cards in one hand that is all of those things and more, including a telephone, a camera, and other things the prognosticators of yore never imagined. Websites and apps such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and/or Instagram are types of social media that enable all types of interaction and communication.
Fear of Screen Addiction
The question of whether or not any or all of these are addictive remains unanswered. The American Psychiatric Association’s most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not include what was then sometimes referred to as internet addiction disorder (IAD) – or simply screen addiction – as an official disorder. Video game addiction was noted as worthy of further study, however, and the United Nations’ World Health Organization seems set to declare gaming disorder a disease soon.
Though one probably has never heard about it, the world is currently in the middle of Screen-Free Week (April 30 to May 6), the latest iteration of an international event (it has evolved, along with the technology, from the earlier TV Turnoff Week and Digital Detox Week) conceived by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to explore other types of interaction and entertainment. That still does not mean Facebook, Twitter or Google are actually addictive.
What Is Addiction?
According to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), addiction is “not having control” over using a substance or continuing in a behavior, “while neglecting other aspects of their lives.” NHS accepts that addiction can include such things as social media, video games, and online shopping.
Not everybody agrees that the use of a smartphone or spending time on Facebook equals addiction. That does not mean it is not a behavioral problem, even a pathology, but it might affect how to treat the problem.
Another symptom of addiction is what happens when one stops using: withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal is the addiction’s way of making sure one keeps feeding it. It makes stopping more unpleasant than continuing, even when the addict no longer enjoys it and realizes how harmful that is.
In the case of alcohol or drugs, this manifests as intense physical pain and can be fatal, but there also is psychological withdrawal.
Reasons to be Skeptical of Screen Addiction
One can agree that excessive use of social media is a bad thing without calling it an addiction. Not even all the people who offer treatment for those who want to reduce their time online think that calling it an addiction is necessarily true or helpful.
The studies that find similarities between heroin and screen addiction tend to be small—only 35 people between the ages of 14 and 21 is not conclusive proof. No wonder that there are more heroin rehab facilities than screen addiction rehab facilities.
Another reason to be suspicious of considering IAD an actual addiction is that the term was invented as a deliberate joke.
In 1995, psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg created the concept of IAD and posted it on Psy.com as a parody of the way the DSM “ medicalizes every excessive behavior,” according to Greg Beato in Reason magazine. To his surprise, many people told him they actually had IAD.
Evidence that Screen Addiction Is Real
They are not alone, and many people who study addiction agree.
- Psychotherapist Nicholas Kardaras, author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – And How to Break the Trance, wrote in the New York Post that “I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.”
- A paper on “Online Social Networking and Addiction” found that increased use of social media reduces other things, such as “real life social community participation and academic achievement,” as well as harming relationships – all signs of possible addiction.
- An experiment in Italy and France found that when graduate students went without their smartphones for one day they experienced anxiety not dissimilar to that which addicts feel during withdrawal.
- A study of screen-addicted teens, presented at a Radiological Society of North America conference, found that the reward circuits of some of their brains had some chemical differences that disappeared after cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Addiction also responds to CBT.
- One of the developers of Twitter admits some features were designed to be “addictive.”
Consequences of Screen Addiction
Based on the number of people who spend time staring at their smartphones in social situations, public and private, who post photos of their plated food on Facebook, who announce every passing thought on Twitter, and who have accidents because they were instant messaging someone instead of paying attention to the road, screen addiction, particularly to social media, does not seem like much of a stretch.
According to data cited by Bloomberg, last year the average American spent 135 minutes on social media daily, up from 90 minutes in 2012, and that 26 percent are online “almost constantly.” Some of that time seems to be while driving. In 2015 the National Safety Council (NSC) reported that 27 % of car crashes in the United States were due to cell phone use.
(The numbers may be even worse. An earlier Bloomberg article revealed that not all police reports indicate when a smartphone was involved. a RAC Report on Motoring similarly found British police also think the numbers are under-reported.)
Economics of Social Media
Countering these risks are the benefits of pleasures of using social media. In Smarter than You Think, technology journalist Clive Thompson argues that having instant access to information and communication makes people more intelligent and better workers. For example, instead of driving to a library to get already hopelessly dated information from a book or periodical, you can find breaking news, facts, and statistics.
According to some experts, one can and should design phones, apps and social media for addiction – slot machines were – but that will not deliver a loyal and satisfied customer or user relationship. Designing for loyalty makes for happier users and long-term success that also extends to advertising on the site.
The rise of social media also has created social media stars, writers, and entrepreneurs. The new documentary The American Meme explores how one social media darling gets paid $50,000 for a single post on Instagram, or how another celeb received $1m for a single photo.
That explains why Facebook seems worried about the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica fiasco despite revenues of $12.7bn ($4.3bn profit) in the last quarter of 2017, and $12bn for the first quarter of 2018: that they might lose the users’ trust and see the #deleteFacebookmovement become a serious threat.
Is Facebook Addictive?
Facebook also is worried about losing to the next big thing. In testimony before the US Congress, Mark Zuckerberg said he felt like he had competition. According to Pew Research statistics about social media use by adults, more use the Google video YouTube than Facebook, and that third-place Instagram (though still far behind) is gaining. (More Facebook users visit it at least once a day, however.)
Frequent or excessive time on Facebook could be a sign of addiction but, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the difference between having or not having an addiction is not only quantitative (how often or long) but also qualitative, such as continuing to pursue the activity despite increasingly negative consequences.
A 2014 report on an experiment in Austria (though only of 101 people) found that the more time people spent on Facebook -which they regarded as wasting time – the worst they felt, even though they thought they would feel better.
Other symptoms of addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, include an inability to abstain consistently, an intense desire to repeat the activity or behavior, and a failure to realize how the behavior is causing them problems with interpersonal relationships.
In the end, whether Facebook, Twitter or other social apps are actually addictive does not matter. There is more than enough evidence that they can become bad habits or hazardous to health to one degree or another. The question is what one can or should do about it.
Technology is not destiny. Not every Facebook user is a problem user. If it turns out to be a problem, one should try walking away. If they cannot, whether it os an according-to-Hoyle addiction or not, they need help.