Social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook offer the obvious advantage of frequent and convenient interpersonal communication. More than a billion people are reported to log in daily to Facebook, the most popular SNS in the world and the one that has been most studied. Roughly half of those aged 18 to 24 years check the site upon awakening. While many people use Facebook without issue, a growing body of research suggests that some users can develop addictive behavior involving this SNS.
Though it is not a formal diagnosis, researchers have used the term “Facebook addiction” to refer to excessive, compulsive use of the site with the aim of altering mood, despite any negative consequences. Excessive use alone does not denote addiction without compulsivity. For example, some individuals spend large amounts of time on Facebook as part of their jobs but are not compelled to overuse the site on a personal basis. “Like many behavioral addictions, it is a combination of salience and loss of control, though there are certain differentiators,” said Frederick Muench, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of digital health interventions in the department of psychiatry at Northwell Health in New York City. “In particular, social insecurity – fear of missing out, feeling others have better lives than oneself – appears to be uniquely associated with Facebook addiction,” he told Psychiatry Advisor.
A 2015 study Dr Muench coauthored found no link between Facebook addiction and positive offline relationships, which suggests that the feelings associated with social relationships may be more influential than the presence or absence of positive relationships.2 “This is different from other types of addiction, Dr Muench said. “For example, whereas pathologic gambling may be driven by reward and deficits in monetary loss sensitivity, trouble controlling SNS use may be driven in part by the desire to gratify social insecurity and comparison, among other factors, even when positive relationships already exist.”
Other research has identified specific traits connected with a higher propensity for Facebook addiction. A review published in 2014 in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found it to be linked with being male and a heavy user of the site, as well as certain psychological factors.3 “Basically, the main conclusion of the article was that Facebook users with low psychosocial wellbeing – such as those who are lonely, anxious, or depressed – can be at risk of developing symptoms that are suggestive of Facebook addiction,” said study coauthor Tracii Ryan, PhD, a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This often occurs as a result of habitual use of the site for the purpose of alleviating negative moods.
Compulsive Facebook use can have negative consequences, including relationship problems, disrupted sleep, impaired academic performance, and feelings of envy, according to a variety of findings.1 One study, for example, found that regular users are more likely to perceive life as being unfair and to believe that others have better lives than theirs; other research observed an association between compulsive use and relationship dissatisfaction.4,5
The way in which the site is used may be a key factor in whether it is healthy or not, adds Dr Muench. Passive use – also known as “lurking” – has been found to be more dysfunctional than active use such as posting or interacting with other users. A 2013 study showed that greater Facebook use led to a decline in wellbeing over time, although not in users who interacted directly with other users on the site.6
While there is no standard cutoff to indicate addictive Facebook behavior, Dr Muench says use may be problematic if an individual:
- Uses it more than intended
- Spends time on the site that used to be spent on other activities
- Does not find it rewarding but continues to engage in excessive use
- Feels social envy when using the site
- Experiences consequences in relationships as a result of Facebook use
Dr Muench suggests that clinicians pay particular attention to these indicators when assessing for compulsive Facebook use, as well as aspects like lurking, fear of missing out, and envy associated with use. “The problem is there are rarely terrible consequences, but rather it sucks the life out of an individual slowly, so clinicians miss it,” he notes. He recommends that if clinicians have concerns regarding a patient’s Facebook use, they should consider advising a 1-week break, then eventually a 1-month break, from all social media. Findings have shown that such a break leads to increases in life satisfaction and positive emotions.7
“If Facebook use does seem to be causing significant problems in an individual’s life, it would be worthwhile trying to get to the root of the issue,” adds Dr Ryan. “It is possible that it may be linked to social loneliness, social anxiety, or depressive episodes.”
Dr Ryan says that much of the current research on the topic is based on other addictive behaviors such as compulsive gambling and internet addiction, and “to improve the validity of Facebook addiction, it is important for researchers to continue researching whether it involves unique symptoms, or whether it affects different people in different ways.” Conducting further studies in Facebook-addicted individuals would be particularly useful.
Dr Muench points to the need for more analytical data, as many studies in this area to date have been based on self-report, and that additional research on interventions is also needed. “The early research suggests taking a break is helpful, as is changing how one uses social networking sites,” he says. “The more I get involved in this and other research, the more I become a Luddite about social media in particular.
- Chakraborty A. Facebook addiction: an emerging problem. Am J Psychiatry Res J. 2016;11:7-9.
- Muench F, Hayes M, Kuerbis A, Shao S. The independent relationship between trouble controlling Facebook use, time spent on the site and distress. J Behav Addict. 2015;4:163-169.
- Ryan T, Chester A, Reece J, Xenos S. The uses and abuses of Facebook: A review of Facebook addiction. J Behav Addict.2014;3:133-148.
- Chou H-TG, Edge N. “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: the impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Network. 2012;15:117-121.
- Elphinston RA, Noller P: Time to face it! Facebook intrusion and the implications for romantic jealousy and relationship satisfaction. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Network. 2011;14:631-635.
- Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, et al. Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS ONE. 2013;8:e69841.
- Tromholt M. The Facebook experiment: quitting Facebook leads to higher levels of well-being. Cyberpsychol Behav Social Networking. 2016;19:661-666.