Why “Social Media Addiction” Makes Absolutely Zero Sense

The idea of “social media addiction” (yeah, let’s put that in quotes) is one which makes no sense.

As Mike Masnick at Techdirt observes:

Over the last decade or so, there’s been something of an… well… addiction to calling any sort of overuse of a product an addiction. So we’ve seen email addiction, web addiction, online porn addiction, video game addiction, internet addiction, and mobile phones or other gadget addictions among other things.

When you dig deeper, nearly all of these “technological addictions” don’t really appear to be addictions to the technology, but rather a symptom of some other issue (such as depression) that manifests itself by focusing an inordinate amount of time on some technology. Focusing too much on the symptom, by falsely labeling it an addiction, could lead to poor treatment, as the focus is on treating the symptom, rather than the actual problem.

Ironic, then, that social media consultant Amy Porterfield who “sees past the hype” (according to her about page) wrote a post at Social Media Examiner titled:  Study Highlights Growing Social Media Addiction.  In it, she shared the details of a study by Retrevo Gadgetology which highlights “social media addiction.”  And it’s as silly and “hyped up” as any of the addictions highlighted above by Mike.

It misses the point entirely to even use the phrase “social media addiction.”  Both Retrevo Gadgetology and SME hurt their credibility to  say this.  Sure, some of the items in the article such as checking Facebook in the middle of the night could be considered compulsive behavior.  But that would be a manifestation of a real problem and not the actual problem in and of itself.  It’s a symptom, not a cause.

The idea of framing technology as addiction is sensationalistic and done to grab headlines, pageviews and links.  It plays perfectly into the fear-driven media culture of the last two decades.

Todd Essig, Ph.D.,  supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute highlights the dangers of this spread of misinformation:

Making “Internet addiction” an official diagnostic category is just wrong on so many levels, including, I believe, making it more difficult to get the right kind of help to those who have actually become painfully stuck online. Many people are turning from life lived to life online and they need help, but real help for real problems, not newly-minted addictions.

By sanctioning behavioral addictions the new DSM opens the diagnostic door to the full menu of confessional daytime TV problems: gambling, shopping, eating, playing World of Warcraft, visiting porn sites, chatting online, having sex with dozens of women with teased blonde hair (hello Tiger), getting too many tattoos, hoarding newspapers (addicted to print!), or whatever else comes along. Who knows, should the political tide turn Republican Senators might successfully plead they were not ruining the country, they were just suffering from “Anti-American Filibuster Addiction Disorder.”

Medically sanctioning the category of “behavioral addictions” also changes how we will think about freedom and responsibility. Making bad choices, developing destructive habits, and attempting solutions to problems in living that then become serious problems themselves will all become less important as the locus of responsibility shifts from the person doing something to the something being done.

….Additional research, which is almost always good to do, will not help determine whether or not “Internet addiction” qualifies as a behavioral addiction. Such research will never be able to clarify whether what people are doing with technology qualifies as a behavioral addiction, unlike research about something like gambling, because of what I call the “Essig Uncertainty Principle.” The principle states that “because technology develops so much faster than research gets done, research into the psychology of technology always makes claims about what people used to do and not what they do now.” Consequently, all the Internet behaviors being studied as possible “non-substance addictions” will have long since been replaced by the next big thing by the time all the research is done.

Indeed.  When qualified psychoanalysts are balking at the notion of technology as addiction, it puts into perspective how much you should trust those propagating it without comprehension.  Let me highlight that a few data-points uncovered by a survey of 1,000 people (as is the data being reported by SME) is hardly the rigor done by psychoanalysts to gain a scientific understanding of behavioral disorders.

Some other stats from the article don’t even point to addiction:

  • 56%: Social media users check Facebook at least once a day.
  • 12%: Social media users check Facebook every couple of hours.
  • 40%:  Respondents who said they didn’t mind being interrupted for a message.
  • 32%:  Respondents who said using the sites was not off limits while eating a meal.
  • 7%: Respondents who said they’d check out a message during an intimate moment.

First of all, why “social media users?”  What does that even mean?  Why not just call them people?  That aside, these additional data points point not to addiction, but to a shifting of behavior.  You could just as easily make the argument we suffer from “cell phone addiction” if you were to conduct a study looking at how we allow our cell phones to permeate our lives.

I’ll second Mike, let’s hope common sense prevails and media/bloggers stop slapping the addiction label on everything without actual validity.