Is social media use a potentially addictive behaviour?

Frequent use of social media may not amount to the same as addiction, according to researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and the University of Strathclyde.

The study invited 100 participants to locate specific social media apps on a simulated smartphone screen as quickly and accurately as possible, while ignoring other apps. The participants were varied in the extent and type of their social media use and engagement.

The exercise aimed to assess whether social media users who reported the greatest level of use were more likely to have their attention drawn to the apps through a process known as ‘attentional bias,’ which is a recognised hallmark of addiction.

It also assessed whether this bias was associated with scores on established measures of social media engagement and ‘addiction’.

The findings did not indicate that users’ attention was drawn more to social media apps than to any others, such as a weather app; they were also not associated with self-reported or measurable levels of addictive severity. This contrasted with other studies which have shown attentional bias related to addictions such as gambling and alcohol.

The research paper entitled ‘Social media ‘addiction’: The absence of an attentional bias to social media stimuli’ has been published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions.

Simon Hunter, Professor of Applied Psychology at GCU and co-author of the paper, explained: “There is a lot of healthy debate around whether social media use can be described as an addiction. In areas like alcohol or drug use, users pay more attention to things relating to their addiction – so, for example, a smoker might notice a packet of cigarettes more quickly than a non-smoker.

“In our study, we did not find any evidence that this effect was present when comparing low and high social media users. This suggests that high levels of social media use should perhaps not be described as an addiction.”

Dr David Robertson, a Lecturer in Psychology at Strathclyde University and a partner in the research, said: “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.

“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 behaviour.

“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.”

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