UAlbany Study: Social Media Potentially Addictive, Linked To Substance Abuse

Mar 12, 2015

If you can't resist the urge to check Facebook on your smartphone during every waking hour, you're not alone. A  recent University at Albany study finds excessive use of online social networking can not only be addictive, but may also be associated with other impulse control disorders, including substance abuse.

Credit Composite Image by Dave Lucas (WAMC)

According to Pew Internet Project, as of January 2014, 74 percent of online adults use social networking sites, more often than not accessing social media from their mobile devices.  In 2013, Facebook released data affirming that four out of five daily users of the social network log on via smartphone or tablet.

University at Albany psychologist Julia Hormes  led a study involving 292 undergraduates 18 years and older, assessing the addictive nature of social media. Nearly 90 percent of them had an active Facebook profile. They were spending one-third of their online browsing time on the social networking site.    "We used diagnostic criteria that would usually be utilized to diagnose things like alcohol dependence, so tolerance using things more and more over time to get the same effect. Withdrawal, getting irritable, angry if you don't have access to what it is you desire, craving, and instead of assessing alcohol use we applied this to the use of online social networking sites, in this case Facebook, which is obviously one of the more popular ones, and what we found was that using those criteria, about 10 percent of the students that we surveyed, reported significant levels of problems."

Problems researchers categorized as “disordered social networking use.”    "Having difficulty staying away from these sites. They felt out-of-control when it came to using these sites, felt like they were getting in a bad mood when they didn't have access, so, a significant proportion really did feel like it was a problematic behavior and not just something that was kind of fun."

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Hormes' research team determined that individuals struggling with social media addiction exhibited poor impulse control and were also more prone to report drinking problems.

Historically, religious rituals have been tied to people's struggles with addictions.   Efforts to break the chain can involve sacrifice, such as the Catholic tradition of "Lent" where an individual makes a personal decision to refrain from a particular activity.

Troy Record reporter Danielle Sanzone authored a page one story about people increasingly giving up social media for Lent. She herself gave it a rest Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve, as part of a charity event.   "It was really for me, that's for sure. It was really hard, but it was nice too, while I was off of it. It was kind of a relief. I felt less stimulated all the time, like sometimes I feel like when I'm on social media I have a hard time sleeping at night. A lot of my colleagues say the same thing. I've had more time to do other things too. I was exercising more, I was actually doing the dishes!"

Complicating the social media trap is the ubiquitous smart phone, which  Hormes  points out, has changed daily routines for millions of people.   "We used to actually have to make specific plans to meet people in certain places at a specific time and we had to stick to that, and now we have the option of changing and sending a quick text 'we're gonna be late' so I think it really is changing the way we plan out our lives and behave around each other."

Even many of the techno-holdouts eventually come around: U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer's staff keeps his Twitter account updated. Schumer sends email sparingly and uses a flip phone.  "I can't stand it when everybody goes to meetings and they're looking in their laps at their iPhones. I think I'm a better Senator 'cause when I'm either with constituents or colleagues, I'm actually listening to what they say."

Schumer admits he has "one foot in the new technology world."  He's now carrying an iPad, and does admit to receiving a few emails now and then.  Hormes  adds social media has become so incorporated into daily life it's difficult for almost anyone to completely avoid.

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