How far can Facebook overuse be considered an addiction?
Behavioural addictions have only been added to the accepted list of mental disorders (DSM-5) in 2010 (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011). Thus far, only pathological gambling has been given a status as a formal psychiatric disorder (Andreassen et al., 2012). However, there has been increasing research devoted to the potential for other behavioural addictions to also be included within this definition. As Griffiths (1998) notes, the extent to which computer addiction might be considered a form of behavioural addiction in itself can be difficult to separate from the media hype that labels the use of new technology as an addiction. This essay will consider how far Facebook addiction might be considered as a behavioural addiction. First, the evidence for social media addiction will be considered. Secondly, the extent to which this first to a social model of addiction may be considered. Thirdly, the extent to which such behaviour fits to a neurological definition of addiction will be considered.
The extent to which Facebook overuse exists as a form of compulsive behaviour that bears some similarity to other forms of addiction has been demonstrated through a number of studies. Wolniczak et al. (2013) use an adapted form of the internet dependence questionnaire, and demonstrate that Facebook dependence was present in 8.6 per cent of a sample of 418 undergraduate university students in Peru. A significant of prediction of Facebook addiction may be identified through self-report, where the user both engages in social networking too often, but simultaneously acknowledges that he or she engages in such behaviour, as shown by Machold et al. (2012). In Machold et al. (2012), 33 per cent of the sample population felt that they engaged in Facebook too often. Similarly, Cabral (2008) identified that 49 per cent of a sample of 313 social media users aged between 11 and 16 felt that they were using social media too much, with 64 per cent using social media between 30 and 90 minutes a day. This was related to similar symptoms of addiction, such as the fact that 39 per cent of users spent more time on social media than was intended, and 23 per cent stated that they experienced withdrawal symptoms when they were unable to access social media regularly (Cabral, 2008). Olowu and Seri (2012) identified that of 884 Nigerian university students, aged between 16 and 30 years, 64 per cent of those who used social media sites very often (34 per cent) stated that they were unable to stop.
From this evidence, Facebook addiction might seem like a very real form of compulsive behaviour that might lead to it being perceived as a kind of behavioural disorder. However, self-report methods may mean that the use of the sense of addiction may vary amongst users, and ‘being unable to stop’ can be meant as a turn of phrase rather than a true statement as fact. The extent to which Facebook addiction is perceived as compulsive by its users may be questioned when placed against the potentially more serious compulsion of gambling (Volkow et al., 2016). It may also be considered as significantly separate from other kinds of physiological dependences that contribute to drug or alcohol addictions, for which the term is more commonly applied because although it might result in some levels of harm, it is difficult to demonstrate it as holding the potential to result in self-destructive behaviour in the same way that is documented for drug addiction or gambling (Machold et al. 2012). However, it has also been argued that some people who are addicted to substances are addicted in more than simply a physiological dependence upon the substance (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011). Addiction might be defined in terms of compulsive or impulsive behaviour associated with the practice and to an extent, Facebook addiction fits this model (Volkow et al., 2016).
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Defining addiction socially, or in terms of its behavioural characteristics, Griffiths (2005) suggests that there are six particular components to behavioural addiction that can be used to identify different manifestations of the practice. These comprise:
- Salience, which refers to the extent to which the behaviour is the most important activity in the person’s life, or where it becomes a dominant part;
- Mood modification, where the behaviour has an emotional effect upon the individual;
- Tolerance, which means the behaviour increases in order to achieve the same level of mood-modifying amounts;
- The person must experience withdrawal when the person cannot engage in the behaviour;
- Conflict is caused between the person and the people around them, where the addictive behaviour causes a conflict with other activities with other people;
- Relapse refers to the tendency of the individual to revert to the previous form of behaviour (Griffiths, 2005).
The extent to which these encapsulate addictive behaviour completely is not always the case: for example, alcohol addiction may often take place in a socially accepted form, or take place in a way that does not cause conflict with others (Griffiths, 2005). Furthermore, for behavioural addictions to have an effect upon the person there has to be a sense of reward when engaging in the activity (Boffo et al., 2018). For gambling, this is often clear: the person gambles in expectation of the reward in terms of the potential for winning. In terms of Facebook addiction, the reward in terms of being connected to others and able to view other people’s lives is less clear: it does not necessarily appear to produce a ‘payoff’ in the same way that gambling might and there is not necessarily a sense of euphoria reported (Boffo et al., 2018). However, this gradually increasing addiction is more comparable to how alcohol addiction often begins, where the pleasure is not necessarily euphoric, but the sensation of being under the influence of alcohol becomes the new ‘norm’ for the person, leading to the negative symptoms of withdrawal (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011).
The biological model of addiction suggests that there are some changes in the brain’s structure that are associated with the addictive behaviour, particularly in the sense that the behaviour results in particular rewards and benefits being given to the addict when they engage in the behaviour. This is uncontroversial when attached to substance addiction because some substances such as cocaine can effectively ‘hijack’ reward centres in the brain, and this results in the addiction become powerful and pervasive in the addict. The extent to which this model may be applied to Facebook addiction can be questioned, however, because there is little evidence that it appears to result in a similar hijack to substances (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011; Boffo et al., 2018).
Satel and Lilienfeld (2010) argue that the extent to which addictions might be encapsulated as a biological addiction in this way can reduce the extent to which the individual is regarded as having free will. Although there is some evidence that the neurological pathways in the brain are adjusted to create reward structures that make the behaviour compulsive, it is always possible for the person to withdraw from the addictive behaviour (Boffo et al., 2018). This also does not take into account the fact that many addicts do not engage in the harmful behaviour at all times. Satel and Lilienfeld (2010) suggest that a fully biological condition cannot be avoided by the threat of punishment, whereas addictions can. Perhaps the conclusion that Satel and Lilienfeld (2010) offer is that addiction can have a biological effect upon the brain, but this does not mean that they should ever be conceptualised as wholly biological in their effect.
Essig (2012) suggests that the epithet of addiction and the accompanying debate of whether such behaviour can constitute addiction is unhelpful in dealing with the problem that Facebook overuse causes. The addiction concept can prove unhelpful because, as Satel and Lilienfeld (2010) identify, the notion of addiction seems to suggest that it is not entirely within the agent’s own control, and it is not entirely identified as an appropriate model for describing such behaviour in either a social definition of a biological or neurological condition. It is perhaps better to identify such behaviour in terms of pathological overuse, because the user becomes entrapped in the promise that the social media offers in terms of a virtual reality, or method of engaging with friends in a virtual reality. This meets the objection to the addiction thesis, in the sense that the symptoms of withdrawal are not as substantial as is the case with other forms of addiction, and the harm that is caused by social media exists, but is not as potentially self-destructive in most cases when compared to the harm caused by drug or gambling addiction.
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In conclusion, Facebook might seem compulsive behaviour, even to the extent of causing harm or conflict with other activities, but it cannot be considered an addiction in quite the same way as gambling or substance abuse. First, the extent to which compulsive behavior can be seen in terms of addiction can be questioned: for example, many people overeat, but we would not regard all such people as addicted. Secondly, the costs and benefits of Facebook addiction are not necessarily as fundamental as other forms of addictions: Facebook can take time away from other activities, disrupt sleep patterns, but does not necessarily result in a self-destructive behaviour that can be considered comparable to gambling. Participation is primarily in time, and although this can be costly in the sense that it takes time from other activities, it is not comparable to the costs of drug addiction or gambling. This is not to say that Facebook overuse cannot be compulsive, damaging or harmful to the user, but simply that it appears, at present, to fall short of the more evidently self-destructive behaviour of those with more firmly-established addictions.
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