Social Media Addiction Linked to Substance Abuse, Study Finds

By Brent McCluskey 12/17/14

Social media acts as a powerful behavioral conditioning tool that makes users more susceptible to other addictions.

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Most social media users are aware of the addictive quality that comes with receiving a notification, but a new study says that those who frequent social media sites may be more prone to substance abuse.

Conducted at the University of Albany, the study surveyed 253 undergraduate students about their social media habits, Internet addiction, emotion regulation, and alcohol use. The researchers discovered that the reward aspect of social media sites acted like a powerful form of behavioral conditioning, and that those who were addicted to social media were more susceptible to substance addiction.

Study lead Julia Hormes said social media sites like Facebook are especially addictive because of the way “rewards” are presented to the user, and because of the accessibility to new notifications.

“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.

“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," she continued. "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 253 undergraduates that were surveyed spent nearly 33% of their web-surfing checking Facebook, and 67% had push notifications enabled on their phones. Of the study’s participants, about 10% experienced “disordered social media use,” or in other words, they were addicted to checking Facebook.

According to the researchers, “disordered social media use” is a result of poor emotion regulation skills, which is connected to an increased risk for substance 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.

While it’s practically undisputed that Facebook and other social media sites possess addictive qualities, particularly when it comes to receiving likes and positive comments, it’s difficult to say definitively that frequently checking Facebook 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. “I think the answer really depends on your definition of ‘addiction.’ Many people think of addiction 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.”

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Brent McCluskey is a Social Media Editor at International Business Times as well as a Jedi with Sith tendencies.  He is also a reader of books, slayer of dragons, and level 80 mage.

“Yeah, I have a broad skill set. If I had to pick between being a Divergent or a wizard, I'd pick a wizard.”  His wizardness can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.