Almost half of British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media, according to findings that come amid mounting pressure for big tech companies to be held accountable for the impact of their platforms on users.
The finding, from the Millennium Cohort study, adds to evidence that many people feel they have lost control over their use of digital interactive media. It comes as dozens of US states are suing Instagram and its parent company, Meta, accusing them of contributing to a youth mental health crisis and as the EU has ushered in major reforms designed to give consumers more control over smartphone apps.
The latest research, by Dr Amy Orben’s team at the University of Cambridge, used data from the Millennium Cohort study which is tracking the lives of about 19,000 people born in 2000-2002 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. When the cohort were aged 16-18 they were asked, for the first time, about social media use. Of the 7,000 people who responded, 48% said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I think I am addicted to social media”. A higher proportion of girls (57%) agreed compared to boys (37%), according to the data shared with the Guardian.
Scientists said this did not mean that these people are actually suffering from a clinical addiction, but that expressing a perceived lack of control suggests a problematic relationship.
“We’re not saying the people who say they feel addicted are addicted,” said Georgia Turner, a graduate student leading the analysis. “Self-perceived social media addiction is not [necessarily] the same as drug addiction. But it’s not a nice feeling to feel you don’t have agency over your own behaviour. It’s quite striking that so many people feel like that and it can’t it be that good.”
There has been growing concern about the potential for digital technologies to drive compulsive behaviours, with the World Health Organization establishing “gaming disorder” as a diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases. Earlier this year, the US surgeon general issued a rare public health advisory on the risks that social media may pose to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
However, the evidence underpinning these public health concerns is mixed, with one recent study on Facebook use challenging claims that social media is psychologically harmful and the clinical classification of behaviours linked to digital technology remaining contentious among experts.
“Social media research has largely assumed that [so-called] social media addiction is going to follow the same framework as drug addiction,” said Turner. Orben’s team and others argue that this is likely to be oversimplistic and are investigating whether the teenagers cluster into groups whose behaviour can be predicted by other personality traits.
It could be that, for some, their relationship is akin to a behavioural addiction, but for others their use could be driven by compulsive checking, others may be relying on it to cope with negative life experiences, and others may simply be responding to negative social perceptions about “wasting time” on social media.
Dr Michael Rich, director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston children’s hospital, said the latest findings align with his centre’s clinical experience that a significant portion of young people are struggling with “problematic interactive media use” (Pimu), uncontrolled use of interactive media of all kinds, including social media, but also gaming, pornography and “information-bingeing – endlessly linked short videos, blogs, aggregate sites”.