Facebook and Drug Abuse Link Suggests "Social Media Addiction" Is Real

"They experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit."

People find it hard to quit Facebook, even in the face of mounting privacy concerns or theoretically hefty financial costs. But even though it feels hard to stop scrolling, the jury is still out on whether we can actually classify excessive social media use as an addiction. A study published in Behavioral Addiction this week, however, adds to the mounting pile of evidence that social media use might be similar to gambling — or even drug addiction. There are some big differences between them, of course, but the similarities are too much to ignore.

Dar Meshi, Ph.D., is the first author of the new paper and a cognitive scientist at Michigan State University who investigates the reasons that people find Facebook and its social media kin so hard to quit.

Though “social media addiction” isn’t actually a condition that appears in the DSM-5 (the go-to academic classification for mental disorders), over the years Meshi has noticed similarities between social media use and substance addiction, both in the underlying neuroscience and in the behaviors he’s noticed over the years.

“Some people are exhibiting what we might call a maladaptive or excessive or problematic social media use,” Meshi tells Inverse. “We see things like preoccupation, they experience conflict with others because they’re using it all the time, and they experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.”

In his comparison of problematic Facebook user behavior and gambling behavior, Meshi found evidence that we must at least consider that excessive social media use might be an addiction, for the sake of everyone’s mental health.

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Meshi found that chronic social media users performed similarly to drug addicts on a gambling task.

Good Decks vs. Bad Decks

His 71 participants filled out the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS), a form created in 2012 to quantify how “addicted” someone is to Facebook (BFAS, it should be noted, has its critics). From there, the participants completed the Iowa Gambling Task, which is commonly used by researchers to demonstrate the relationship between decision making and substance abuse.

Out of four card decks, players pick 100 total cards, each corresponding a cash reward or a punishment (a card that depletes the cash stockpile). There are two “good decks” that promise consistent winnings, but no large payoffs; in other words, you’ll always make money at the end of the task but not a lot of it. There are also two “bad decks,” which offer large payouts but more severe punishments. It’s easy to lose money with those decks.

Comparing the results from the task and BFAS, Meshi found that people whose social media use rose to the level of “excessive or problematic” performed worse on the task overall because they consistently chose risky cards from the “bad decks” in hopes of cashing on on a big reward.

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People with higher BFAS (facebook addiction scores) had lower scores on the Iowa Gambling Task because they picked riskier cards

“We See That Exact Same Thing”

“When you compare drug addicts to healthy people, no matter what the substance — it’s been shown with cocaine, marijuana use, amphetamines, ecstasy — all these people choose the bad decks more than the good decks. We see that same exact thing with people with excessive social media use.”

This doesn’t mean that social media use rises to the full-blown level of “addiction” — Meshi is careful to avoid that word in his study — but it does provide evidence that type of consideration might be on the horizon.

The DSM-5 distinguishes between substance abuse disorders and non-substance use disorders (also sometimes called behavioral addictions). Right now, gambling is the only disorder in the behavioral addiction category, but others are gaining traction. For example, the DSM-5 at least mentions “internet gaming disorder,” and in June, the World Health Organization added a video gaming disorder to the 11th edition of the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases. Some psychologists, however, criticized that move as “premature.”

Scientists still have a long way to go in terms of classifying problematic social media use as a bona fide substance use disorder, but the body of evidence is growing. If internet gaming is enough to be considered a behavioral use disorder, social media use could very well follow.

“I would like to do more research,” adds Meshi. “This is really the first time this behavioral paradigm has been performed with social media users. I’m not saying this is an addiction but I would like to understand whether it is or isn’t one. We’re just at the beginning.”