Study Finds Some Social Media Use Is Akin To Drug Use

If you feel like you’re addicted to Facebook, you may be onto something. A new study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found a connection between social media use and risky decision-making, a problem frequently associated with substance abuse.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers surveyed 71 participants about their Facebook use, using the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. They used the survey to analyze users’ feelings toward the social media platform, including their attempts to stop using it, their feelings around being unable to use it and how it has impacted their career or education.

facebook photo
Getty Images | Drew Angerer

The participants then did the Iowa Gambling Task, in which people try to identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to win money. The task is commonly used to assess people’s decision-making skills. People who used social media the most made the worst choices, while those who used social media less made better choices. Drug abusers are shown to exhibit similar poor decision-making via the task.

“Decision making is oftentimes compromised in individuals with substance use disorders,” said Dar Meshi, lead author of the study and assistant professor at MSU. “They sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcomes. But no one previously looked at this behavior as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers. While we didn’t test for the cause of poor decision-making, we tested for its correlation with problematic social media use.”

deck of cards photo
Getty Images | Ethan Miller

In 2017, Nottingham Trent University psychologists Mark Griffiths and Daria Kuss, who were the first academics to review the scientific literature on social media use in 2011, found that for some people, social media use is associated with other psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Although only a small minority of people can be classified as actually addicted to social media, the psychologists feel that many users can still experience negative effects due to their social media use.

“Most people’s social media use is habitual enough that it spills over into other areas of their lives,” Griffiths and Kuss wrote in an article for the Washington Post in 2018. “It results in behavior that is problematic and dangerous, such as checking social media while driving.”

They advocate for a multi-pronged approach to reducing the public’s dependence on social media.

“There is no magic bullet,” they wrote. “Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own social media use. But policymakers, social media operators, employers, researchers, health care providers and educational establishments all need to play their part in reducing excessive use of social media, the ‘opiate for the masses.'”