Social Media Addiction Linked to Substance Abuse

A new study has investigated the potential for social media addiction and has found a link between excessive social media use, problems with emotion regulation and problem drinking. As of October, Facebook had 1.35 billion active users, 800 million of whom log on daily. The widespread nature of social media use and the growing concern about a variety of non-substance addictions (particularly ones involving the Internet and technology) have led to concern about the potential for social media addiction. The study’s finding provides strong evidence for the existence of social media addiction, but what does the link between it and substance abuse really mean?

Social Media Addiction and Variable Interval Schedules

The basics of social media addiction are easy to understand: drugs are addictive because of the impact they have on the brain’s neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine—the most well-known addiction-related chemical. This means that although chemical substances can create the boost, non-substance activities like gambling, sex and social media use can lead to addiction-like cycles of craving and reward, with dopamine creating the “wanting” and the opioid system creating the “pleasure” before the whole cycle repeats. In a nutshell, the social “rewards” we obtain from social media use—having a status “liked,” for instance —can create addiction in much the same way as addictive substances. The power of social media, according to lead researcher Julia Hormes, comes down to the “variable interval schedule” of the rewards. She explains, “New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently.” This variable schedule is particularly effective in creating addiction-like behaviors that are hard to overcome, and social media websites like Facebook make things even worse through the use of notifications popping up on cell phones thanks to dedicated apps. You don’t even need to log on to get your social fix; it just arrives if you have an app installed.

Social Media, Emotional Regulation and Alcohol Use

Hormes’ and her colleagues’ research assessed social media addiction using modified criteria for diagnosing substance dependence and looked at its relationship with the regulation of emotions and problem alcohol use requiring treatment. They recruited 253 undergraduate students for the study, around 63 percent female, 61 percent white and about 20 years old—a mixture representative of the target population. The researchers found that 9.7 percent of the sample showed evidence of “disordered online social networking use,” which can be thought of as an addiction to checking Facebook. On average, they spent a third of their time online on Facebook, and 67 percent had notifications enabled on their smartphones. Those who met the criteria for dependence displayed many classic addiction characteristics, including irritability when they couldn’t access the site (withdrawal), cravings or urges to browse Facebook, and increasing use over time (indicative of tolerance). The core findings were the associations uncovered for those addicted to Facebook, with there being significant correlations with Internet addiction, problems with emotional regulation and problem drinking. All of these achieved statistical significance, but problem drinking was less strongly correlated than the former two. Issues with emotional regulation have previously been shown to be risk factors for substance addiction, and it makes sense that Internet addiction itself was related to another Internet-based addiction (through social media). Hormes explains, “Our findings suggest that disordered online social networking may arise as part of a cluster of risk factors that increase susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addictions.”

Social Media and Substance Abuse?

There is a danger of these findings being interpreted to mean that social media use increases your risk of developing problems with drinking, since social media addicts were more likely to be problem drinkers. The reality—as Hormes’ statement indicates—is that there are underlying risk factors (such as emotional regulation issues) that increase the risk of developing both types of addiction. The answer is technically “yes,” if you overuse and are potentially addicted to social media, you have a greater chance of developing substance use problems, but social media use isn’t a “gateway” to drinking. Although the headlines seem surprising, really they just tell us something we already know: people who struggle with emotional and psychological issues are more likely to develop an addiction to anything, substance or not.

Social Media Isn’t Your “Friend”

The take-home message from this study is that although social media seems innocuous, it plays on our inherent social drives to produce addiction-like issues in about one in 10 users (at least for college-age individuals). Facebook isn’t your “friend,” and if you’re susceptible to addiction, it may be more accurately described as your enemy. It won’t lead you to develop a drinking problem, but if you have other addictions, it’s definitely worth evaluating your use of social media and trying to cut back. The good news is that as an addiction, “disordered online social networking use” can be treated in the same way: identify the root emotional and psychological driving forces and learn healthier, non-abusive methods for coping with them.

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