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Excessive Social Media Use Linked To Substance Abuse, New Research Finds

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The addictive quality of social media is well documented; past studies have found striking similarities between the behaviors and brain activity of heavy social media users and those of people struggling with addictions. But new research suggests that the similarities don’t end there.

According to a new study published in the journal Addiction, not only is social media (particularly Facebook) itself potentially addictive, those who use it may also be at greater risk for impulse-control issues like substance abuse.

The researchers, led by University of Albany professor Dr. Julia Hormes, surveyed 253 undergraduate students, asking questions about their social media use, Internet addiction, emotion regulation and alcohol use. They found that roughly 10 percent of users experience “disordered social media use,” meaning that they exhibit addictive behaviors in the way they use platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. To assess disordered social media use, the researchers included questions that reflected modified diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence, such as, “How good does Facebook make you feel?” and “Do you check Facebook first thing when you wake up in the morning?”

The analysis revealed that those who were struggling with social media addiction were more likely to report Internet addiction (as measured by scores on the Young Internet Addiction Test), challenges with emotion regulation (such as poor impulse control), and drinking problems.

Dr. Holmes, a clinical psychologist specializing in addictive disorders, said that Facebook was found to have especially addictive properties. The respondents spent an average of one-third of their online browsing time on Facebook, and 67 percent received Facebook push notifications on their phones.

“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,” Hormes said in a statement. “This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a ‘variable interval schedule of reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices.”

The researchers hypothesize that disordered social media use is likely a symptom of poor emotion regulation skills, which heightens susceptibility to a variety of types of addiction.

“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,” said Dr. Hormes.

The new findings join a growing body of research investigating the addictive potential of Internet social media use. MRI data has shown that the brains of compulsive Internet users to exhibit similar changes to those seen in people with alcohol and drug addictions.

A 2012 study conducted by Harvard researchers provided some insight into why using Facebook in particular seems to be so highly addictive. Disclosing information about ourselves, the researchers found, is intrinsically rewarding. It activates the Nucleas Accumbens, a brain area that also lights up when cocaine or other drugs are ingested. But it’s not just posting on Facebook that’s addictive — it’s also receiving all those likes and comments. Another study found that receiving positive feedback about ourselves also activates the brain’s reward centers.

However, Hormes’ and other research can’t be taken as conclusive evidence that disordered social media use constitutes a full-blown addiction. Currently, pathologic gambling is the only behavioral addiction included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

 

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Discussion

One thought on “Excessive Social Media Use Linked To Substance Abuse, New Research Finds

  1. I was so angry that I couldn’t post this on Facebook. [?]

    Posted by Susan Wheadon | December 20, 2014, 9:20 pm

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