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At least 5 % of young people suffer symptoms of social media addiction

The average Dutch teenager spends six hours a day on social media and gaming. Image: Shutterstock/Jelena Aloskina
The average Dutch teenager spends six hours a day on social media and gaming. Image: Shutterstock/Jelena Aloskina

Preliminary results from a research study into young people’s media habits carried out at the University of Amsterdam reveal that about 5 % of young teenagers can be classified as addicted to social media.

Symptoms of addiction, or obsessive use, can include lying about the amount of time spent online, using social media as a form of escapism, loss of interest in meeting people, and feelings of irritability or withdrawal.

Surging social media use is leading researchers to look into the impacts on young people, and new findings support claims about its addictive potential.

Nine symptoms of obsessive use

1 - Spending substantial amounts of time thinking or fantasising about it.

2 - Needing to spend an increasing amount of time to feel the desired effect.

3 - Feeling restless, irritated, angry, frustrated, anxious, or sad when unable to use it.

4 - Unsuccessful attempts to stop, control, or reduce usage.

5 - Using to relieve negative mood states.

6 - Continued usage despite being aware of negative consequences.

7 - Lying to others about, or covering up the extent of, usage.

8 - Diminishment of other social and recreational activities.

9 - Losing, or nearly losing, an important relationship or opportunity.

Symptoms taken from criteria used to assess internet gaming disorder.

Professor Patti Valkenburg, from the University of Amsterdam has been analysing data on obsessive social media use, basing her definition on the same nine criteria used to assess internet gaming disorder.

According to Prof. Valkenburg, 5 % is a significant number. ‘Advertisers are happy when they can influence 5 % of their audience. That’s important for them,’ she said.

Prof. Valkenburg is now looking in more detail at the effects of media on children and young people via the EU-funded ENTCHILD project.

She is following the daily media habits of 1 800 young children and young teenagers in the Netherlands over a four-year period, gathering data through media diaries, in which participants log their daily media use.

Initial findings show the average young teenager in the Netherlands spends three hours every day on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and another three hours playing computer games on top of that.

The Netherlands was one of the first European countries to get broadband internet, something which Valkenburg says could make it slightly ahead of the trend. However, she says it’s only a matter of time before the same behaviours catch on elsewhere.

‘Entertainment is one of the most globalised products. These trends are everywhere in western countries … It will soon be everywhere like this.’

While the amount of time spent on social media or computer games is important, it’s not the only factor determining whether someone is classed as a compulsive user or not.

Prof. Valkenburg explains that when it comes to internet gaming disorder, for example, if people display signs of five out of the nine criteria listed in the DSM-5 handbook of psychiatrists, which is used in the US to diagnose mental disorders, then they are considered ‘compulsive’ gamers.

Reinforcing spiral

According to Prof. Valkenburg, it’s still too early in the analysis to say for definite which young people are most likely to develop obsessive behaviour towards social media.

However, she has found evidence to suggest that girls are more susceptible than boys. It’s a trend that she has also observed during previous research into online gaming. 

When it comes to compulsive gaming, Valkenburg argues the development of the behaviour is often connected with feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.

‘We know that lonely adolescents are more likely to become compulsive users, but that compulsive use also increases loneliness. A reinforcing spiral so to speak.’

Shifting standards

Concerns about the effect of media on children are nothing new, with views of what is appropriate varying between time and place.

According to Dr Helle Strandgaard Jensen lead researcher on the EU-funded CHILDREN-MEDIA project, notions about what is suitable media for children changed completely between 1950 and 1970, and again in the 1980s, and are constantly changing today.

The CHILDREN-MEDIA project is examining the introduction of US kids’ TV show Sesame Street to Europe in the 1970s to analyse the role of culture in shaping opinions about what is appropriate and inappropriate media for children.

Dr Strandgaard Jensen has found that the decisions of TV producers and broadcasters on both sides of the Atlantic were geopolitical. She says that ideas about the appropriateness of children’s media tend to be normative and put parents under a lot of pressure.

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