Social Media Addiction: Who’s Most at Risk?

Young woman using a smart phone. (Getty Images)
A UConn researcher finds that the answer lies not in how much you tweet, but whether you post significantly more on weekends than weekdays. (Getty Images)

Are you at risk of becoming addicted to social media?

It seems the answer lies not in how much you tweet or microblog, but rather, whether you post significantly more on weekends than weekdays.

That’s what UConn operations and information management professor Xue Bai and two colleagues found in a newly published study in the journal Information & Management titled, “Weekdays or weekends: Exploring the impacts of microblog posting patterns on gratification and addiction.”  Their findings are based on in-depth study of the habits and responses of a diverse group of 308 microbloggers.

“We found some very surprising results,” says Bai. “It has always been the belief that ‘heavy users’ were most likely to become addicted, but we found there is a stark difference in the types of users and why they’re communicating online.

“Some are simply seeking information, and they seem the least at risk of addiction,” she notes. “Others are looking for happiness, fulfillment, or a sense of belonging that is missing in other aspects of their lives, and that is the most concerning.’’

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation of China and the MOE Project of Key Research Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Universities of China.

Social Media Use is Changing Culture

The statistics on the number of people using social media are staggering.  In the United States, more than 70 million people per month used Twitter in the first quarter of 2017. Sina Weibo, a popular microblog platform in China, had about 340 million active users in the month of March 2017 alone, the most recent data available.

Bai says the fast-growing microblog phenomenon is changing the way people interact socially, as well as the way they exchange information.

“For some people, social media is completely addictive,” she says. “It cuts across all demographics, from new mothers to college students to employees who are on the clock. With some people, it seems you just can’t get the phone out of their hands!”

She and her colleagues, Qian Li of Renmin University and Xunhua Guo of Tsinghua University, both in China, set out to study the use, and abuse, of social media.

For their research, they selected 308 Chinese residents, from different walks of life, and presented them with a questionnaire to probe the rewards of their social media engagement, and whether they thought they were addicted to the service. The participants also gave permission for the researchers to access their accounts to collect usage data. The study examined users of the three most popular microblogging sites in China: Sina, Tencent, and Neteast.

After obtaining the results, the researchers divided participants into four groups, depending on their microblogging patterns.

Unlike previous assessments, which singled out heavy microbloggers as most likely to be addicted, Bai and her colleagues approached their work from a different angle. They first looked at traditional media, such as TV and newspapers, and realized that people had different patterns of engagement during the week and at weekends. For example, newspapers offer different content on the weekend, and tend to be more carefully read by subscribers.

This led them to differentiate among social media users in terms of how much time they allotted to social media and their reported gratification,” Bai says.

They found that those who use microblogs more on weekdays are less likely to be posting about their personal life or work experience. For example, one of the main focuses of weekday microblogs relates to marketing activities. Frequently appearing words include: “opportunity,” “participate,” and “forward.”

But when the researchers looked at microbloggers whose participation significantly increased at weekends, they found many described themselves as depressed, lonely, or lacking impulse control. Often, they said their social media usage was difficult to curb. They indicated that social media distract them from family and other obligations; and they were more likely to derive a sense of comfort and belonging from their online experience.

Technology Fan or Technology Addict?

Technology addiction, defined as a user’s psychological state of maladaptive dependency on information technology use, is considered one of the major flaws associated with technology development, Bai says. Those who are addicted to technology may use it compulsively at the expense of other important activities, such as work performance or an active social life, much like other vices such as gambling, overeating, and drug use.

In the study, the researchers found that heavy weekend users not only reported high levels of gratification on a social scale, but also said they enjoy the process and rewards of content, and are the most likely to be addicted. The statements they commonly agreed with are:

  • “There’s a sense of human contact.”
  • “I feel as if I’m well known in the groups.”
  • “I often think about something I experienced on social media well after I have logged off.”
  • “I feel like I use social media more than I ought to.”
  • “My dependence on social media usage sometimes seems beyond control.”
  • “I am less lonely when I am using social media.”
  • “I am at my best when I am using social media.”

The researchers were surprised to find that heavy weekday users are not usually addicted, and that they report the lowest levels of gratification among all users. Those who are “balanced” users – who do not display a distinguishable difference between the amount of weekend and weekday use – reported average gratification levels from social media, and are also less likely to be addicted, even if they are often on social media sites.

Although the research was conducted using popular microblogging sites with Chinese residents, Bai feels the implications are universal.

“I think our research indicates that people need to develop a full social life,” she says. “Social media is great for the exchange of information, but not as a substitute for family, traditional friendships, and in-person relationships.”