Social Media Addiction: Engage Brain Before Believing

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Are we addicted to social media or to headlines that make good copy?

When you see headlines about social media addiction, take a deep breath. Exhale. I know this sounds radical, but don’t go by the news articles. Find the actual study and read it. Don’t just read the results; see how the researchers define what they are measuring. This is important because 1) sometimes studies just don’t make sense, 2) sometimes things that are only correlated get reported as being a ’cause’, and, 3) the people writing the articles don’t always read the actual studies before they write—even whey they are real journalists.


Margarita Tartakovsky

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., M.B.A., is Director of the Media Psychology Research Center and faculty in the media psychology program at Fielding Graduate University (link is external) where she designs and teaches courses on brand psychology, transmedia storytelling, audience engagement, and corporate social responsibility for brand extension. She is the lead faculty in Fielding’s media psychology certificate program with an emphasis in Brand Psychology and Audience Engagement (link is external). Rutledge is also active as a consultant, speaker, writer, and researcher. She specializes in applying psychological science to consumer behavior, media use, and the design of interactive and mobile media and technology.

Editor: Jafar Ali


Psychologists, parents, educators, and politicians frequently talk about how important it is to teach kids media literacy so they can critically use, produce and evaluate media. Evidence suggests that this is not a skill that should be reserved for the young.

There has been a little flurry of news articles and blogs recently about social media addiction. First of all, it concerns me that, as a society, we are very cavalier tossing around the concept of ‘addiction.’ Addiction is a serious psychological diagnosis based on specific and seriously life-impairing criteria. (PT Blogger Allen Frances has a good discussion of behavioral addictions as compulsively driven behavior with negative consequences and the problems of getting too loose with clinical diagnoses.) Identifying an addiction of any kind is important.  To my knowledge, however, a college student saying “I’m addicted to Facebook” is not an adequate diagnostic criterion for addiction any more than someone saying they are addicted to chocolate or American Idol.

Of course, as a writer, if you can get the word ‘addiction’ in a headline it will draw eyeballs to your copy because it targets people’s fears. (Did it get you to read this?) Since we are all biologically wired to notice danger, especially where kids are concerned, this is a sure-fire way to get someone to read your stuff. I know journalists are all freaking out about the competition from new media. I get the conflict. But this isn’t the time to compromise journalistic standards, it’s the time to shore them up to prove your point about training and objectivity.

One of the recent studies discussed in the reports about social media addiction was an interesting outgrowth of a class assignment in a journalism course, not an empirically designed research project. The web-published results were a thoughtful qualitative analysis by a team headed by University of Maryland professor Dr. Susan Moeller. (An acknowledged limitation is that this is a population of college students particularly interested in and engaged with media.) The homework assignment was to go without media for 24 hours and then write about it.

The results of the analysis of student submissions (along with some notes on methodology) were published online. They included quotes from students that were illustrative of their experiences. That is how qualitative studies are done. A quote is not meant to be a common denominator and it is not accompanied by a frequency distribution; it is local color. The report on the website describes how students experienced a new appreciation for how they used media. Some students even used the word ‘addiction’ in their submissions. However, most comments, judging from the data published on the report’s site, were reflective of different types of new media use, the shift in the students’ reliance on new media relative to traditional forms, and the students’ desire to stay connected to friends, family, and world events.

The conclusion had nothing to do with addiction but made important points about the way social media technologies have been integrated into students’ lives, their expectations about the frequency of contact, and how that impacts how they relate to the world.  From the site:

The major conclusion of this study is that the portability of all that media stuff has changed students’ relationship not just to news and information, but to family and friends — it has, in other words, caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions.  (ICMPA, 2010, 3)(link is external)

The headlines in several news articles reporting on the study focused entirely on social media addiction, extrapolated from student comments, not the analysis, and did not mention the profound, albeit conceptual, shifts in behavior and expectations. Thus when various reporters/writers polled experts for their articles, they asked about social media addiction, not the other implications of the study. One article(link is external) had a particularly good quote from fellow PT blogger and media psychologist Stuart Fischoff, who reasonably and articulately pointed out that,

“All these technologies have potential for terrific use and for terrific abuse…Everyone is a potential addict – they’re just waiting for their drug of choice to come along, whether heroin, running, junk food or social media. All those substances can be streetcars of desire…”

His remarks, evoking some cool imagery and media references, basically said there is potential for addiction with many behaviors. Exactly.

Fischoff’s great quote got picked up by WiredPRNews.com when they decided to cover the story about the Maryland study, only now the headline said “Study shows social media withdrawal can occur”(link is external) and starts out, “A recent study suggests individuals may go through withdrawal symptoms from abstaining from social media for long periods.” The writer then cites the Maryland study as the source for Fischoff’s quote. (At least he still got credit for saying it, even if he hadn’t been in the study.) Does this remind anyone of the old “telephone” or “whisper” game?

Another recently quoted report was published online by Retrevo Gadgetology(link is external), entitled “Is Social Media a New Addiction?” This is a marketing report by a consumer electronics marketplace. As an academic piece, it has some serious methodological issues and the criteria for diagnosing addiction were included in the survey.

That wasn’t Retrevo’s intention and, to their credit, if you read the actual report you see they responsibly qualify their remarks, are speculative about their conclusion, and do not declare outright an epidemic of social media addiction as the headline might imply:

We’re not qualified to declare a societal, social media crisis but when almost half of social media users say they check FaceBook or Twitter sometime during the night or when they first wake up, you have to wonder if these people aren’t suffering from some sort of addiction to social media. . (Retrevo, 2010, 7)

By the time the study got reported by Media Post, however, it was labeled “Social Addiction”(link is external) and said that the Retrevo study concluded that social media can be habit-forming.

We live in a world where information is no longer the purview of the privileged few, but neither is having an opinion.  This is tremendous freedom and opportunity.  With it comes responsibility.  There is no way to maintain freedom and have someone else vet all the material you read.  You have to do it yourself.  Think of it as defensive driving.  This is a big onus, but in my mind, a price well worth paying.

However, we can’t be lazy or blinded by our beliefs instead of engaging our gray matter.  If we blithely forward ‘facts’ based on our innate biases and “it seems right to me” conclusions, pull the most sensational quotes to use as headlines, and, as consumers, believe what we see rather than thinking critically and reading original sources, then we will not be able to identify the real issues we need to tackle nor will we be able to see our way to the positive potential these tools can bring.

As Fischoff said in his quote, there is no shortage of things to be addicted to.  Social media is just one of many.  But just because something is new and has a profound impact on how people behave doesn’t by definition mean that it is bad or harmful.  Believe it or not, there are actually research studies that report a positive side to social media, too, but they don’t make very good headlines.

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