Researchers at Michigan State University are exploring the idea that there’s more to “social media addiction” than casual joking about being too online might suggest. Their paper, titled “Excessive social media users demonstrate impaired decision making in the Iowa Gambling Task” (Meshi, Elizarova, Bender and Verdejo-Garcia) and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, indicates that people who use social media sites heavily actually display some of the behavioral hallmarks of someone addicted to cocaine or heroin.
The study asked 71 participants to first rate their own Facebook usage with a measure known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. The study subjects then went on to complete something called the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a classic research tool that evaluates impaired decision making. The IGT presents participants with four virtual decks of cards associated with rewards or punishments and asks them to choose cards from the decks to maximize their virtual winnings. As the study explains, “Participants are also informed that some decks are better than others and that if they want to do well, they should avoid the bad decks and choose cards from the good decks.”
What the researchers found was telling. Study participants who self-reported as excessive Facebook users actually performed worse than their peers on the IGT, frequenting the two “bad” decks that offer immediate gains but ultimate result in losses. That difference in behavior was statistically significant in the latter portion of the IGT, when a participant has had ample time to observe the deck’s patterns and knows which decks present the greatest risk.
The IGT has been used to study everything from patients with frontal lobe brain injuries to heroin addicts, but using it as a measure to examine social media addicts is novel. Along with deeper, structural research, it’s clear that researchers can apply to social media users much of the existing methodological framework for learning about substance addiction.
The study is narrow, but interesting, and offers a few paths for follow-up research. As the researchers recognize, in an ideal study, the researchers could actually observe participants’ social media usage and sort them into categories of high or low social media usage based on behavior rather than a survey they fill out.
Future research could also delve more deeply into excessive users across different social networks. The study only looked at Facebook use, “because it is currently the most widely used [social network] around the world,” but one could expect to see similar results with the billion-plus monthly Instagram and potentially the substantially smaller portion of people on Twitter.
Ultimately, we know that social media is shifting human behavior and potentially its neurological underpinnings, we just don’t know the extent of it — yet. Due to the methodical nature of behavioral research and the often extremely protracted process of publishing it, we likely won’t know for years to come the results of studies conducted now. Still, as this study proves, there are researchers at work examining how social media is impacting our brains and our behavior — we just might not be able to see the big picture for some time.