Baruch College Professor Isaac Vaghefi Leads Study on How Addiction Develops in Social Media Users
June 13, 2022
As social media companies face increasing scrutiny over their impact on politics, culture, and users’ mental health and wellness, new research from Baruch College suggests that the road to social media addiction is paved with the same processes that mark addiction to other, more well-recognized compulsions, including drugs, alcohol, and gambling.
Isaac Vaghefi, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Information Systems at Baruch’s Zicklin School of Business co-authored the forthcoming “The Path to Hedonic IS Use Addiction: A Process Model in the Context of Social Networking Sites” for Information Systems Research, the foremost scholarly publication in this field, along with Professor Bogdan Negoita of HEC Montréal and Professor Liette Lapointe of McGill University.
“We wanted to see how normal social media use could turn into a compulsion or even an addiction,” says Professor Vaghefi. “It turns out that the path to social media addictions is remarkably similar to the those of other, more familiar addictions like drugs, alcohol, or gambling.”
Longitudinal Study Looks at Addiction Development Process
The authors collected data through 101 interviews and 248 surveys over the span of 4 years and analyzed it to propose a model showing how social media addiction develops over time.
Unlike other studies in this area that have offered a snapshot of user behavior at a given time, Vaghefi’s study provides a longitudinal perspective and helps to understand how user behaviors change over three phases — starting from nominal, non-problematic use, then turning into a compulsion and ultimately an addicted type of use.
In each phase, social and psychological needs like connection, belonging, validation, and social interaction as fulfilled by use of social media features that enable constant availability, entertainment, and content exchange create a potent and potentially dangerous mix.
“Every time we get a notification or someone likes our post, we get a dopamine release,” explains Vaghefi. “We see the same brain response with certain addictive drugs and behaviors.”
Problematic and Maladaptive Relationship Between Technological Tools and People
Social media companies have created products that give users tools to meet certain psychological and social needs, including a sense of community and belonging and the basic pleasure of escaping from real life for a short time.
According to Vaghefi, these products have changed over time, as companies have focused on maximizing users’ ability to connect and share, to exchange more complex content faster and more efficiently, and to entertain themselves using different platforms. In short, they want to stay on it as much as possible.
Ultimately, whether or not someone moves from nominal (normal, non-problematic) use to something resembling compulsive or addictive behavior comes down to an individual’s ability to control their ongoing interactions with the technology.
“If someone’s self-control is compromised – say by a history of depression – then limiting time spent on social media can become increasingly difficulty for some users, eventually leading to destructive impacts on their work/study performance, well-being, and social life,” Vaghefi says.
He adds: “It’s not solely technology at fault, and it’s not just the individual at fault. It’s the relationship between individual and technology that becomes problematic.”
Vaghefi and the research team suggest that their findings could inform policymakers to regulate social media companies, pushing them to develop ethical products that more carefully consider the welfare of the user.
The study cites “recent reports that for-profit technology providers are not necessarily concerned about users’ addiction…and may even make it harder for users to control use or quit.”
According to the researchers, there are various strategies these companies can employ now to help users control their behavior. A successful approach would focus on increasing user awareness about their own use, help them compare it to others’, and then nudge users to self-regulate.
Potential features might be easy-to-access statistics and monitoring systems that send warnings or even actively limit the amount of daily or weekly time spent using the technology.
“I’m not saying that social media is bad by itself,” Vaghefi said. “I’m saying it has a dark side that needs to be addressed so that we can enjoy its positive aspects.
“Communication, social interaction, entertainment…we all need that, but to what extent?”