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.