How much is ‘too much time’ on social media?

Researchers are investigating whether social media addiction constitutes a mental disorder. Is this a moral panic or food for thought? Watch the video above.

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This month, BBC Future is exploring social media’s impact on mental health and well-being – and seeking solutions for a happier, healthier experience on these platforms. Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon…

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Describing yourself as ‘a social media addict’ doesn’t usually inspire concern from other people. In fact, it’s frequently included in bio descriptions on Twitter and Instagram. Decorate your LinkedIn profile with such a claim and you may even find yourself receiving interest from media and publishing companies searching for a savvy digital native. But imagine if, one day, it’s not an accolade or joke at all – but a psychiatrist’s diagnosis?

Social media addiction has been a much-flouted term lately; maybe it’s because it’s January and users are looking to be more active and spend less time online, or maybe that’s because social media can have a negative impact on our mental well-being. But a growing body of research is seriously considering whether problematic and excessive social media usage could be pathological and, in turn, designated as a mental health disorder. 

There are two established organisations which classify mental disorders – the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association. Any alleged addiction needs to fit certain criteria before it’s considered pathological behaviour, and there needs to be a vast amount of research that confirms it. It was only announced in January 2018 that video gaming addiction – a problem as old as the internet itself – will be listed by the WHO as a disorder.

What’s especially interesting about this new classification is that one of the experts who has been researching it for decades – Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University – has also been investigating gambling addictions, internet addictions and the excessive, perhaps even dangerous, use of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Screentime isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge for whether someone is using their favourite platforms problematically 

“Do I believe that people can be so engrossed in social media that they neglect everything else in their life?” he asks. “I do think it can be potentially addictive.”

In his research, Griffiths has found that a technological compulsion like ‘social media addiction’ comes with all the behavioural signals that we might usually associate with chemical addictions, such as smoking or alcoholism. These include mood changes,  social withdrawal, conflict and relapse.

The most important factor is whether a person can differentiate between healthy use and a relationship with social media sites that is negatively affecting their life.

“If I take video gaming, for example, I’ve come across a lot of very excessive gamers,” Griffiths explains, “but there’s little known negative, detrimental effects in their life. If they did that for two years then maybe obesity or being generally sedentary might bring on some health issues, but in terms of addiction? Excessive enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it.”

So, as long as that enthusiastic playing isn’t affecting an individual’s job or personal relationships, then there is no need for concern. Putting a time limit on social media use is, for Griffiths, “a bit of a red herring. You can have two people doing things identically – it makes a big difference if someone has a job, partner and two children.”

This suggests that screentime isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge for whether someone is using their favourite platforms problematically. When we polled BBC Future’s Twitter followers for what they thought was ‘too much’ time on social media, there was little consensus. Of course, our results were from a self-selecting sample so do not necessarily represent the general population, but they were nonetheless interesting.

Over a third (40%) of the 554 people who voted thought that more than two or three hours was too much, but we know that most people spend at least two hours social networking and messaging every day. The majority of internet users do not have pathological relationships with social media, which surely means that two or three hours probably isn’t too much at all. We know that over a third of UK 15-year-olds use the internet for six or more hours a day, with much of that time dedicated to social networking sites. Despite their heavy consumption, such heavy use does not mean these young people are mentally unwell. Time spent online is only one factor. There are clearly other things to consider.

So, if it’s not about the amount of time spent, what else might define social media addiction – or help us understand what sort of person might be most vulnerable to it?

Social media addiction is a long way from being designated as a mental disorder 

Griffiths and his colleague Daria Kuss published the first ever review paper for what he calls SNS (social networking sites) addiction in 2011, at a time when there were only three papers on the subject. They found that extroverts appear to use these sites for social enhancement, whereas introverts use them for social compensation. They also found that more time spent on these sites involved less involvement with real-life communities. In 2014, in another overview paper, they added that SNS use provides continuous rewards; users may increase engagement with it to relieve dysphoric mood states, sometimes leading to psychological dependency.

Then in 2017 a large, national survey found that those showing addictive behaviours were more likely to be women, young and single. They also tended to have lower levels of education, income and self-esteem.

“The thing about social networking is that it’s a social behaviour. In terms of general sex differences and gender differences, the typical female tends to be more social than the typical male,” says Griffiths.

 

For Griffiths, the potential for SNS addiction lies in content and context of excessive use – not the time spent. However, at a conference about social media and mental health at the Royal Society of Medicine, he concluded that the reasons behind such an addiction are still unclear. It could be to do with Fomo, the fear of missing out. Smartphone addiction might also be a part of it, as well as nomophobia – the fear of not having your phone with you at all times. More importantly, the data on SNS research is skewed toward Facebook, little is available about photo-based platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

This means that social media, or SNS addiction, is a long way from being designated as a mental disorder. Amy Orben, a social media psychologist at the University of Oxford, says that for now, she has strong reservations about defining social media as an addiction. “The evidence is still so scarce it is difficult to even know whether the effect of social media is positive or negative. We need to make sure we don’t overpathologise regular behaviours.”

 Moderate digital technology use is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world

Whether it is one day classified or not – it is clear that there are downsides to using social media platforms. Research has suggested that young people who spend more than two hours a day on social networking sites are more likely to report poor mental health. If you’re on Instagram, there are examples aplenty of overly-filtered simulations of life that are supposed to be ‘aspirational’ but instead make many users feel like we’re having a worse life than our peers. It’s of little surprise that Instagram was rated as the worst social media platform for young people’s mental health in a UK survey. Yet its audience is growing – there are now over 800 million users worldwide.

We do know there is a direct link between social-media use and depression but other research shows that social media use is not always negative. One 2017 study found that the relationship between digital screen time and mental well-being works in a sort of upside-down u-curve. They call it the Goldilocks Hypothesis: - increasing doses of time on your smartphone or your computer is actually positively associated with well-being, but only to a point. Then, the dose is associated with lower levels of well-being, as the graph below shows.

The team found that moderate digital technology use “is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world.” One of its authors, Andrew Przybylski from the University of Oxford, told BBC Future that “if you don’t have any access, or if there’s a no screen policy in a home, there are ways that that home or that childhood might be fundamentally different".

He added: “There’s a sweet spot where it looks like it’s part of kids’ lives, but it really doesn’t start getting disruptive until you start going to five, six, seven hours a day.”

When it does begin to get disruptive, or someone is online far too much, one solution could come in the form of pop-up warning signs. Griffiths says that they’re currently used by online gambling sites and, more importantly, they’re working.

“The way that we’ve designed these for companies is to make sure that all the messaging is done in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. You incorporate normative information to let people know how their behaviour compares with other people – you’ve gambled this much and it’s 10 times what the normal person does. It doesn’t say that’s good or bad.”

Encouraging users to self-appraise in this way could pave the way for a similar move in social media. These social comparisons could help individuals understand whether their use is comparative to their peers. A teen spending hours online during the day might be ok, but if a sign popped up at three in the morning saying “3% of your age group are online right now” you might recognise this as detrimental.

Unfortunately, if social media addiction is ever a recognised disorder – self-appraisal, and the realisation that heavy social media use is affecting us more than we think, might happen too late. Until then, a little self moderation might go a long way.

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