What Is Social Networking Addiction?

How to tell if you're hooked

Social networking addiction is a phrase sometimes used to refer to someone spending too much time using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social media — so much so that it interferes with other aspects of daily life.

There's no official medical recognition of social networking addiction as a disease or disorder. Still, the cluster of behaviors associated with heavy or excessive use of social media has become the subject of much discussion and research.

Defining Social Networking Addiction

Addiction usually refers to compulsive behavior that leads to negative effects. In most addictions, people feel compelled to do certain activities so often that they become a harmful habit, which then interferes with other important activities such as work or school.

Person in bed using social media on their phone while their partner sleeps
Lifewire / Jo Zixuan Zhou

In that context, a social networking addict could be considered someone with a compulsion to use social media to excess — constantly checking Facebook status updates or "stalking" people's profiles on Facebook, for example, for hours on end.

But it's hard to tell when fondness for an activity becomes a dependency and crosses the line into a damaging habit or addiction. Does spending three hours a day on Twitter reading random tweets from strangers mean you're addicted to Twitter? How about five hours? You could argue you were just reading headline news or needed to stay current in your field for work, right?

Researchers at Chicago University concluded that social media addiction can be stronger than addiction to cigarettes and booze following an experiment in which they recorded the cravings of several hundred people for several weeks. Media cravings ranked ahead of cravings for cigarettes and alcohol.

At Harvard University, researchers actually hooked people up to functional MRI machines to scan their brains and see what happens when they talk about themselves, which is a key part of what people do in social media. They found that self-disclosure communication stimulates the brain's pleasure centers much as food does.

Plenty of clinicians have observed symptoms of anxiety, depression and some psychological disorders in people who spend too much time online, but little hard evidence has been found proving that social media or Internet use caused the symptoms. There's a similar lack of data about social networking addiction.

Married to Social Media?

Sociologists and psychologists, meantime, have been exploring the impact of social networking on real-world relationships, especially marriage, and some have questioned whether excessive use of social media could play a role in divorce.

The Wall Street Journal debunked reports that 1 in 5 marriages are ruined by Facebook, noting that there appeared to be no scientific evidence supporting such data.

Sherry Turkle, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written extensively about the impact of social media on relationships, theorizing that they actually weaken human ties. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she chronicles some of the negative impacts of constantly being connected by technology, which paradoxically can leave people feeling more alone.

Still, other researchers have concluded that social networking can make people feel better about themselves and more connected to society.

Internet Addiction Disorder

Some people consider excessive use of social networks simply the latest form of "Internet Addiction Disorder," a phenomenon people first began writing about in the 1990s when Internet use was starting to spread. Even back then, people theorized that heavy use of the Internet might impair people's performance at work, in school, and in family relationships.

All these years later, there is still no agreement that excessive use of the Internet or social networking services is pathological or should be considered a medical disorder. Some have asked the American Psychological Association to add Internet addiction to the official medical bible of disorders, but the APA has so far refused (at least as of this writing).

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