Are You At Risk of Becoming a Social Media Addict?

Social Media Addiction (Jeffrey Schleicher/UConn School of Business)
Social Media Addiction (Jeffrey Schleicher/UConn School of Business)

UConn Professor Discovers that Heavy Weekend Users May be Substituting Social Media for a Social Life

Are you at risk of becoming addicted to social media?

It seems that the answer lies not in how much you tweet or microblog, but, rather, if you find yourself posting significantly more on weekends than weekdays.

That’s what UConn Operations and Information Management Professor Xue Bai and two colleagues discovered in a newly published study in the journal Information & Management. Their findings are based on in-depth studies of the habits and responses of a diverse group of 308 microbloggers.

“For some people, social media is completely addictive,” Bai said. “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!”

Xue Bai (UConn School of Business)
Xue Bai (UConn School of Business)

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.

“We found some very surprising results,” Bai said. “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. 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,” she said.

Social Media Use is Changing Culture

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

The fast-growing microblog phenomenon is changing the way people interact socially, as well as the way they exchange information, Bai said. 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 are addicted to the service. The participants also gave permission for the researchers to access their accounts to collect usage data. The study examined the 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. For example, newspapers offer different content on the weekends and tend to be more carefully read by subscribers.

“We thought it could be important to distinguish social media users in terms of their time allotment and their reported gratification from social media,” she said.

They found that the microblogs by weekday users are less related to one’s personal life or work experience. For example, one of the main contents in such microblogs are related to marketing activities. Frequently appearing words include “opportunity,” “participate” and “forward.”

But when they looked at microbloggers who significantly increased their participation on weekends, they discovered that 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 distracts them from family and other obligations, and they were more likely to associate 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 of technology development, Bai said. Addiction is described as the compulsive use of IT 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 their paper, titled, “Weekdays or weekends: Exploring the impacts of microblog posting patterns on gratification and addiction,” the researchers treat technology addiction as a psychological status with gradual degrees.

The heavy weekend users reported high levels of gratification not only on a social scale, but also enjoying the process and rewards of content, Bai said, and are also most likely to be addicted. Among the statements they commonly supported are:

  • “There is a sense of human contact.”
  • “I feel as if I am 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.”

Surprisingly, heavy weekday users are not usually addicted and reported the lowest levels of gratification among all users. Those who are “balanced” users—who do not display distinguishable differences between 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 the social media site.

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

“I hope this research will be helpful for policy makers and platform designers, employee human resource experts and those who work with students and wellness,” she said. “If, collectively, they can help regulate the use of social media, they can ultimately reduce the risk of addiction.”

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