Research Links Addictive Social Media Behavior With Substance Abuse

12/13/2014 09:51 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2015
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Plenty of research has demonstrated that the addictive quality of social media is very real. And according to a new study, heavy social media use may also contribute to a different type of addiction.

Psychologists at the University of Albany found that 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 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?"

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.

Psychologist Julia Hormes, who led the study, 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,” Hormes said.

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. Harvard research conducted in 2012 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 Nucleus 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.

"The question of whether or not disordered online social networking use can be considered a 'true' addiction is a tough one," Hormes said in an email to the Huffington Post. "I think the answer really depends on your definition of 'addiction.' Many people think of addictions as involving ingested substances. However, if we think about addiction more broadly as involving some kind of reward then it is easier to see how behaviors may be addictive."

The new findings were published in the December issue of the journal Addiction.

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