Social media can be harmful. That’s something all behavioral researchers can agree on. There is much less consensus on how exactly its harmful use is defined, and whether or not there’s a corresponding beneficial way to use social media. And at the very center of this academic debate is the question: Can a person become addicted to social media?
Settling on an answer to this question has a surprising number of implications: for the internet, for policy (most notably in a recent lawsuit against Meta), and even for people who suffer from or treat more well-defined forms of addiction. Attempts to do so have resulted in fairly conflicting findings, explains Niklas Ihssen, an associate psychology professor at Durham University in the U.K. In particular, some studies suggest abstaining from social media can improve mood and well-being, while others seem to argue that stepping away from the screens can cause serious withdrawal effects that mirror those present in chemical addictions. “There’s tension between those two strands of research,” Ihssen says.
Studying ‘digital detox’
A new study, led by Ihssen’s postgraduate student Michael Wadsley and published Nov. 8 in the journal PLOS ONE, attempts to reconcile this conflict.
Using activity-tracking apps and surveys, Wadsley and Ihssen followed 51 students for 15 days, including a week during which they were instructed to avoid social networking sites including Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. The participants were then brought in for final surveys and exercises afterward. Around a third of the participants had existing social-media behaviors that qualified as problematic, or harmful to their functioning, on the most widely-accepted scale of social media behavior.
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Wadsley and Ihssen searched in the participants’ responses for symptoms of withdrawal in line with those found in substance-use disorders, such as relapses and increased consumption following abstinence. Though 87% of the participants weren’t able to stay off of social media entirely, their use time decreased to an average of 30 minutes, down from between three and four hours per day, and remained lower than before even after the week of abstinence had passed. “If there’s something like withdrawal, we would expect those cravings to go up after a while,” says Ihssen. But in both usage time and in the results of a test given to participants at the end of the week that recorded their reactions to seeing social media app icons, the sharp craving the chemical effects of withdrawal can cause just didn’t manifest as expected.
Ultimately, however, this study can’t conclusively answer on its own whether social media is addictive. In order to reach a consensus on that question, independent study teams working with small sample sizes, like Wadsley and Ihssen, need to use a set of shared metrics, methodologies, and definitions, says David Zendle, a lecturer at the University of York in the U.K. One 2021 study found that across 55 papers on social media addiction, 25 distinct theories and models were used.
When researchers can’t agree on the right place to dig, nobody gets very deep. This current gray zone is “extremely dangerous,” says Zendle. If social media is falsely framed as addictive, “individuals will be treated in a way that is inappropriate to their lives, causing detriment over the long term,” and it delegitimizes the severity of true addictions, he says. If it’s as addictive as illicit drugs, and science misses it, a huge corporate threat to public health could be running unchecked.
“This is a nice small-scale study,” says Zendle. “What we need are radical, gigantic studies, to the point where when you see nothing going on, you are extremely confident that nothing really is going on.”
Part of the challenge of determining whether or not problematic social media use is classified as an addiction is that behavioral addictions are newly defined, says Zendle, with gambling addiction the only such disorder recognized by official diagnostic criteria. In gambling, researchers first noticed that a stimulus other than a chemical substance could create near-identical effects in the brain. “That transposition unlocked the world of behavioral addictions,” says Zendle. “But what we are now wondering as a community is where else it might be helpful to transpose this.”
Parallels with video game resarch
To see the long-term consequences of these sorts of competing paradigms in research, just look to the debate surrounding the harms of video-game violence, says Zendle, where there’s “an enormously mixed evidence base.” Because of back-and-forth “bad faith” research, he says, scientists are unable to advise psychologists, lawmakers, and game designers in any meaningful way, so drowned out has any consistent truth become.
Wadsley and Ihssen’s study feels more balanced not only because it marks another strike against the addiction theory, but also because it found none of the equivocally positive effects on mood that other studies have suggested comes from a social media break or “digital detox.” Instead, the results showed a varied mix of effects on mood, which most closely resembles the actual variation on findings across research on the topic, rather than sharply negative or positive effects that many individual studies show.
This null finding isn’t inconsequential. Instead, it’s as strong an indicator as research has seen that current thinking about social media and addiction just might not line up with what’s actually happening inside the brain. Social media use is far too complicated and varied to tackle as an addictive substance, says Ihssen. “Even though it can cause issues with excessive use … I think we should not over-pathologize those behaviors.”