Social Media: Are UK Teenagers Addicted to Social Media?
The posts are presented in their order of contribution. They have been occasionally condensed, rephrased or lightly edited to make their content clearer. The full, unedited discussion is available to MirandaLink subscribers here.
CP Opening Post
While spending time with my grandchildren this summer their addiction to social media has been uppermost in my mind.
Is ‘social media addiction’ an observable phenomenon? What is the evidence for this?
How do we ‘fix it?
What can schools and parents do about it?
Alternatively, is there little or no evidence that ‘social media addiction’ is an issue; do we ignore it?
What are the views of MirandaNet and ITTE members?
This is not a problem of children’s behaviour alone but a broader societal issue. Many people use social media. Perhap adults are the worst offenders or the most extreme ‘addicts’?
Should we be cautious about framing this in terms of “how should we adults protect or save our children from the harmful effects of this addictive thing”? We must be careful not to ‘other’ the problem by thinking it is something to do only with protecting children. It’s a culture in which we all now live to some small or greater degree.
In addition it is not clear what ‘social media’ refers to. Typically it is taken to refer some form of messaging, e.g. Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat etc. usually conducted through a mobile, personal device such as a smartphone.
But does it apply to other forms of computer use, e.g. gaming apps such as Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, Fortniteor various types of data tracking app. Does the same issue arise whatever the hardware platform used – desktop, ;laptop, tablet, smartphone – or does that make a difference?
There are new generations of parents coming up behind us and these ‘addicts’ of today are tomorrow’s parents. Already the ‘digital natives’ that Prensky talked about are now parents (and some must already be grandparents!). How long before there are none left who are untouched by social media?
Perhaps instead of ‘medicalising’ this as ‘addiction’ (as if it is an illness) we need to see it as the ‘new normal’. As concerned serious adults we have to ask how do we live a good life in amongst the social media and the apps alongside the trolls that live there too.
Similar moral panics have been with us a long time: cheap novels in the 18th and 19th century (e.g. “penny dreadfuls” aimed at young readers), pornographic photography for the Victorian gentleman, radio and television for the escapist romantic etc. all these have presented social frights, and most have been thought to create “addiction” of some type.
Often the prophets of plague would be the most avid consumers!
Which is not to say it’s all OK – it’s just that:
(a) it isn’t going away any time soon;
(b) it’s the new norm – we accept it or seek major socio-political change! For example, we could construe Zuboff’s analysis (2019) (and quite a few others) as demonstrating that such ‘addiction’ is an essential driving force in our digital economy;</span
(c) kids aren’t like they used to be when we were kids … (and when I was a kid, I wasn’t like my parents were when they were kids, or so they kept telling me!).
We could also consider gender. Cassell and Cramer (2007) argue that young women have been both empowered and constrained throughout the history of communications technology.
New technologies enable young women to socialise online, leading to an increasing confidence with technology and also to obsessive and sexualised behaviour.
There’s a fascinating podcast in the Secret History of the Future series on how some young women were both empowered and vilified for conducting romances by telegraph in the 19th century
Concerned about their children, parents become afraid for their safety. This creates a moral panic, that restricts girls’ use of technology. The result is that girls are prevented from exercising their creative and social power in the new medium.
Interesting. The humble post box was also the subject of moral ‘outrage’ in its early because, supposedly, it might allow or encourage young women to write letters to men and then post them without anyone knowing about it! Using a post box was certainly thought to be rather ‘common’ …
Key line from the abstract is:
“The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being. Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.”
So the issue is not significant? Turvey thread unroll is here.
Amy Orben is challenging value judgements about important issues around the impact of digital technologies. We highlighted some of the concerns around addiction and distraction in our chapter on tablet devices and mobile technologies. Some interesting medical papers are referenced below, particularly informative on the issue of potential technology addiction.
There’s also a somewhat outdated paper from myself and colleagues surveying the use of and attitudes to social media in schools which I think you can download for free:
Sharples, M. et al (2009)
Thanks for this discussion and sharing. Agree that Orben and Przybylski (2019) is an important paper. What is compelling is that the data set they used was very large.
However, our workshops and research with young people show that their use of digital media affects them positively and negatively. This is as much to do with the other factors going on in their lives: friendship groups, sources of pressure, life balance, confidence and wellbeing, resilience, digital competency and sense of agency.
Parenting for a Digital Future (hosted by Professor Sonia Livingstone at LSE) with articles from researchers is very useful
Sonia Livingstone et al (2017) criticise ‘screentime’ as a blunt measure suggesting ‘screenuse’ as a better measure.
Agree that we should medicalise this issue and also that parents and grandparents are amongst the most addicted users.
I have recently concluded that I am to being addicted to social media than I would like. It is rather insidious: I tell people that I only use apps which have a sound academic or health and lifestyle purpose, but is that really true? I go to the gym most mornings and I open the Preva app on my phone, swipe my RFID tag on the treadmill or cross-trainer (which is internet connected) or else scan the QR code on the weights or resistance equipment with the App on the ‘phone. My workouts are thus logged in real time and my Fitness Band (i.e. sports smart watch) logs my heart rate, steps, distance travelled, stairs climbed, etc, etc. all day and all night too, giving me feedback on my sleep patterns and resting heart rate as the gym equipment gives me feedback on my workout.
All this equipment and these apps connect with my FitBit scales in the bathroom which, crazy as it is, I even allow to Tweet my weight and Body fat each morning when I get weighed (yes each morning) and they also connect to the Samsung Health, MyFitnessPal and FitBit apps on my ‘phone, all of which talk to each other. The upshot is that apps tell me my state of health, how many calories I’ve burned, if I am short on protein for the amount of exercise I am doing, etc. I then tell the apps what I am eating and drinking and in real time I get feedback of whether I’m eating too much, too little, etc.
Obsessive? Perhaps, but I have to say that since I took up running and serious gym exercise on 23rd October 2017 I have gone from over 16 stone to about 11.5 stone, I’ve gone from being unable to run at all to completing in The Great North Run a year ago, several 10k races last year and this year, regular 5k ParkRuns, and running about 30k each week for training.
I would not have kept going without all this tech keeping me on track.
So what’s my point? It’s this: I’m 51, I never did computer studies or anything else IT related at school, I grew up in a house with no television because my parents believed that TV was “the one eyed babysitter” and was the reason that all children were so badly behaved and out of control (my parents words not mine). My friendships were restricted by my parents ot avoid children who came from households with TV’s and even the early Atari video games consoles. Yet I am now at an age where I could easily be a parent and grandparent (even great grand-parent!) and I am addicted to tech in many aspects of life, witt one example being the health and fitness tools mentioned above.
On its own this might not be a bad thing, but of course all of the apps I use, however “professional” (e.g. LinkedIn, the MirandaNet site (!)), “Academic” (e.g. research community sites) or “lifestyle” (e.g. the sports and fitness stuff), let alone social media (which I use a little of) and games (which I don’t use and find dull and boring) rely upon users wanting to connect to a wider ‘community’ and many want to get you involved in some sort of ‘competition’ with other users, and that, in my opinion, is where the “addiction” side of things starts to set in if we are not careful.
That is where I suddenly realised only very recently often (several times an hour) I was checking my FitBit app to see who in the ‘community’ I belong to was doing better than me for the day’s step count, miles walked, stairs climbed and so on. A bit of healthy competition is good, but checking these stats every 10 or 15 minutes is unhealthy and for me the red flag that I was getting addicted. Some of the people in the same FitBit community openly share that they have their competitor’s step count displayed in real time on their Apple watches so that they know instantly when someone overtakes them. Some are in their 80’s!
The main point I want to make is that the concept of digital natives now includes absolutely everyone who is pre-retirement age (and many who are older), The idea that this is something which only affects children or ‘young people’ is erroneous.
Amy Orben has her own website with three 3 very relevant studies, openly accessible on her website.
KT6 adds comment
The issue of medicalisation is important. I agree over-use/dependency towards different digital technologies is often too easily medicalised by labelling it ‘addiction’; the word is bandied about very loosely. The points made by DL that it is not associated with one generation are important. As soon as we use the term ‘addiction’ for over use/dependency we medicalise it. That’s why it is useful to go to the medical literature that I referred to earlier; it backs up the argument that we over use the term ‘addiction’ and over simplify it in the context of digital technologies.
I came across this video by Professor Andrew Przybylski: Is Technology Addiction a Myth? It speaks to the points raised:
Excellent video SB thanks
Interesting. Przybylski gives a succinct and clear summary of some ohte points made in this thread.
I note from the audio that MS circulated that it begins with a brief discussion about the moral risks that were perceived to be presented by the bicycle – young women could pedal away off clandestinely to meet men!
In the video posted by SB Przybylski lists some more recent examples of moral panics related to gaming addiction and then gives us a much more helpful phrase to consider, one that points back to the adults in the room: namely “anxiety shift”.
We forget about the anxieties we had a few years ago and latch on to whatever is current – we love our anxiety!
The problem is more to do with the (moral) anxiety of adults than it is with ‘addiction’ It almost doesn’t matter what it is – any old technology or activity is a target if it can be a proxy for some kind of moral harm, particularly to those we culturally perceive to be vulnerable.
If there is a problem of ‘addiction’ it is the addiction of adults to the pleasurable qualities of moral anxiety itself – it gives us a buzz.
We are mostly all in it up to our necks never mind the teenagers. The babes and toddlers offer insights into our shrinking world of time and space and the effects of trying to find what you want or need.
In the video SB posted earlier Przybylski mentions Dr Ivan Goldberg, a medical psychiatrist, who died in 2013 but constructed a pseudo-condition in 1995 he named Internet Anxiety Disorder (IAD).
It’s tempting to blame social media! Are children addicted? Probably. Are their parents? More often than not.
I am listening to the audiobook by Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism. Very relevant. I’ve now downloaded an app to show how much I use my phone and apps every day. The stats do not make good reading!
We need to address this somehow. We need education on using these tools sensibly; more regulation; to encourage conversations easy and difficult both face-to-face and online.
I don’t have evidence but I’m pretty sure the tech companies do!
DN refers the discussion to the active role of companies in creating ‘addictive’ media. This an important aspect of the issue.
For example this news story today asserting that Fortnite developers knowingly make their game addictive.
Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants goes into it, as do many others.
There’s little doubt that a major element of the ‘addictive’ quality of social media is in the very heart of their design (Facebook is famous for this – e.g. see this BBC news story).
So, as DN suggests, turn the issue around to examine the role of app and platform designers of apps and call out the industry for designing addictive user behaviour into their code. It may be strong to compare the industry with drugs, drink or tobacco, but like those industries they do know what they are doing!
The core thesis of Zuboff’s book is that the mechanism by which profit is generated behaviour modification. No wonder that kids and adults are obsessed with online things (myself included) and no wonder that we exhibit forms of addictive behaviour.
This is not intrinsically new, but the scale has changed (e.g. see the many studies on the history of advertising such as The Hidden Persuaders)
Nir Eyal wrote the business textbook about how to construct (compulsive) ‘customer engagement’.
DL yet more
For those interested in this topic, this article in Scientific American seems to be an important and essential read. It illustrates that social science research is becoming more sophisticated and more subtle in its analyses. Some (many?) of the apparently straightforward findings we have formulated over recent years are now being re-analysed. It’s not all bad.
Orben and Przybylski are referenced as is Jean Twenge whose past work has been very influential and ss now re-evaluated. See this article by Jean Twenge.
Thanks for sharing David – a good read!
Colleagues may be interested in following the work of the eNurture network as well. See https://www.enurture.org.uk
I send you and all Mirandanet members regards from Prague.
My PhD student dedicates to a topic related to teenagers’ addiction to computer games – gambling. It is a big problem in our society.