THE BLOG

Are Young People Really 'Addicted' to Social Media?

13/05/2015 17:10 BST | Updated 13/05/2016 10:59 BST

The question of whether social media are addictive is becoming asked more and more. These conversations are generally framed by observations that people seem to 'always' be on social media. The addiction card is particularly used in reference to young people. Though the negotiation by young people of social and mobile media spaces presents many challenges, addiction to social media is, like most addictions, an exception rather than a rule. On the one hand, there are parents who worry and want to exert more control or protection of their kids' use of mediated communication. However, paternalism and protectionism pose real negative effects for teens as studies have found that these behaviors can inhibit their engagement with the world− not only with co-located peers, but people, groups and ideas near or far to them. That being said, coming of age in a world of smartphones and social media does present many challenges.

We need to be careful with employing the language of addiction. It is not only easy to do, but is alluring as well. However, real addiction to social media, though possible, is generally misapplied or hyperbole. Rather, definitions of addiction from mental health ask whether the person built up 'tolerance' to social media wherein they require increasing exposure to it - larger 'fixes'. Also, have social media become the most important aspects of a person's life? This is what psychologists call 'salience'. Lastly, are there physical 'withdrawal' symptoms? Clearly, very few young people fall into social media addiction and I find that invocations of addiction often obscure the social media debate.

For most young people, social media has been found to provide new ways of information seeking, new forms of sociability and generally augment their social lives. There are specific uses that social media is particularly suited to and moral panics that play the social media addiction card reduce the complexity of social media use to statistics of smartphone ownership or hours of screen time. Remember, young people have often been early adopters or 'obsessive' about technology − from the advent of the telephone to the Walkman. That hardly makes them addicted. It just makes them young people who are drawn to technologies they perceive as cool. And parents then complained about overuse of these technologies and some previously Walkman-toting parents may not have fallen far from the tree.

Indeed, they may be walking down the street listening to music and emailing colleagues at work. But, that's just extreme productivity, right? Young people seem to be painted with a different brush in moral panic portraits. And these artists might want to be more reflexive when it comes to their own technology use.

Buy Dhiraj Murthy's book on Amazon