Blog post

Examining our connection addiction

At a time when connection with friends and family is so important when we are physically isolated from them, social media has become a must-have. Far from being maligned as an addictive habit, it is now proving its value. But is it really social media - or the technology that serves it - we are addicted to? Or is it that need for a connection with people that is the addiction? Dr Dean Fido, Lecturer in Criminal Psychology at the University of Derby, and colleagues from across the UK looked at these questions and drew their conclusions.

By Dr Dean Fido - 17 April 2020

If I were to ask you if you were addicted to your friends, this would come across as a very strange question indeed. However, this is the question that we asked the general public (satirically, we should add) in our latest research study.

You may have heard of a growing number of research studies identifying concern over a range of behavioral 'addictions', including among others, Facebook Addiction, Smartphone Addiction, and Selfie Addiction.

However, our research team asked whether these things actually represented 'addiction', or if some people just take normal social interactions to an extreme, whereby the time they spend on their phones and social media disrupts their work and/or relationships. The problem, perhaps, is in the manner by which the 'addict' was being classified.

Scoring responses to the question

To boil it down, previous studies had been using a 'polythetic' scoring system; meaning that an individual would only have to score at the mid-point or above (ie 'neither agree nor disagree', or higher) on at least half of the items on an addiction questionnaire to be labelled an 'addict' (Andreassen et al., 2012). For reference, one such questionnaire, the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, is detailed as follows:

Salience

BFAS1* - Spent a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planned use of Facebook?

BFAS2 - Thought about how you could free more time to spend on Facebook?

BFAS3 - Thought a lot about what has happened on Facebook recently?

Tolerance

BFAS4 - Spent more time on Facebook than initially intended?

BFAS5* - Felt an urge to use Facebook more and more?

BFAS6 - Felt that you had to use Facebook more and more in order to get the same pleasure from it?

Mood modification

BFAS7* - Used Facebook in order to forget about personal problems?

BFAS8 - Use Facebook to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression?

BFAS9 - Used Facebook in order to reduce restlessness?

Relapse

BFAS10 - Experienced that others have told you to reduce your use of Facebook but not listened to them?

BFAS11* - Tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success?

BFAS12 - Decided to use Facebook less frequently, but not managed to do so?

Withdrawal

BFAS13* - Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from using Facebook?

BFAS14 - Become irritable if you have been prohibited from using Facebook?

BFAS15 - Felt bad if you, for different reasons, could not log on to Facebook for some time?

Conflict

BFAS16* - Used Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies?

BFAS17 - Given less priority to hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of Facebook?

BFAS18 - Ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of Facebook?

To be classified as a 'Facebook addict' on this scale, all that would be required is for you to say that ten or more of these statements had 'sometimes' impacted you in the past year - and this didn't sit well with us.

It felt like scales into 'problematic social media use' were applying overly liberal scoring techniques, possibly leading to normal behaviour being seen as problematic.

We thought that 'problematic' Facebook use, for example, could simply be a manifestation of a normal human need for social contact and interaction.

Replacing online with offline

To explore this further, we assembled a team of like-minded researchers and social scientists (now known as the REDTEAM) who shared similar concerns about the validity of social addiction measurements.

Our approach was simple. Take some Facebook addiction questionnaires, replace 'Facebook' with 'offline friends' and assess offline friend addiction using the normative scoring techniques used in existing literature.

We made sure to pre-register the way in which we would collect, process, and analyse our data. View our materials and data.

Our 'Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire' (or 'O-FAQ') held together relatively well, and was underpinned by three factors, and was consistent over time:

  1. Social rumination (eg "I often think about the times I've spent with friends")
  2. Life disruption (eg "I have ignored my current/previous partner(s) or family members to spend time with friends")
  3. Affective reactions (eg "I become irritable if I am unable to spend time with friends")

The scale was associated with personality traits in the expected directions.

'Social rumination' correlated positively with Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Extraversion - and so supported the idea that this factor contains social activity and rumination traits.

'Life disruption' was negatively correlated with Conscientiousness (which is associated with rigid planning and productivity), but positively related to Extraversion.

And 'affective reactions' was positive correlated with the emotional trait of Neuroticism, and negatively correlated with the planful trait of Conscientiousness.

Counting the offline addicts

Using the polythetic procedure described above, which is used as a standard procedure in social addiction research, we classified 558 of our 807 participants as being addicted to their offline friends.

That's an offline-friend addiction prevalence rate of 69%.

This is surely an incorrect inference to make - but that doesn't stop other researchers in addiction using these same procedures to highlight 'social media addictions'.

Finding the social being in us all

Here, we have demonstrated that researchers can quickly produce farcical results when conceptualising social media as a distinctive entity that is unrelated to any other social context.

Seeking information from others about their lives or turning to friends when we feel lonely or bored, is to be a social being.

Modern technology accelerates these processes, and the wealth of current social media addiction research is confounded by failing to demonstrate how these behaviours are unique or divergent from offline social behaviour.

We urge other researchers working in this area to focus on testing what components of social media use are distinct to offline social information, especially when attempting to pathologise such behaviour.

Watch a short video outlining the project (created by Linda Kaye).

The REDTEAM (Researching Engagement in Digital and Technological Environments for Advancing Measurement) collaboration network is comprised of Liam Satchell, Dean Fido, Craig Harper, Heather Shaw, Brittany Davidson, David Ellis, Claire Hart, Rahul Jalil, Alice Jones Bartoli, Linda Kaye, Gary Lancaster, and Melissa Pavetich.

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or call 01332 593953.

About the author

Dr Dean Fido
Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience

I am a Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Derby. My main area of interest is in the commonly-considered ‘deviant’ personality trait of psychopathy. I believe that psychopathic-related traits are not just evident in criminal populations, but exist to some degree within everyone in the general population.

Email
d.fido@derby.ac.uk