Social Media Dependency Research

The current state of research on social media dependency-addiction among students

This area of study was triggered among us when several years ago we were discussing the increasing problem we were having with phone use in the classroom.  Not only was phone usage up, but we were starting to see changes in student’s reactions to ‘quit using your phone’.  In the past students were bummed but would comply.  But starting around 2015 we noticed that an ever-increasing number of students seemed to be incapable of NOT using their phones.  They were actually exhibiting emotional distress when removed from their phones, to the extent that some would actually leave class rather than quit phone usage.  It looked very similar to smoking or other addictive behaviors.

Initially we thought this was a personality-discipline issue, and unique to a small group.  But when talking it over we realized that it was actually a relatively large number of students exhibiting these behaviors and the emotional need to stay socially connected.  At this point Dr. Darren Iwamoto (Psychology) and I decided to formally study these behaviors with the goal of modifying and improving student behavior for professional success.

You have seen the results of some of our research with the Leamnson survey you took at the beginning of the semester [which has turned out be a very surprising data set], and the summary of findings that have been embedded in the social media portion of the AN 341 [Digital Realities, Virtual Worlds] course.  Social media addiction is a rapidly-growing field of research and of public concern—looking at the social, behavioral and physiological impacts of social media use.  It has become a standard topic in the media, though actually field studies are very limited.

Probably the most complex study done to date is that of Miller et al “Why We Post” project, both in numbers and in scope.  Many of our findings replicate theirs, though we have a very different agenda and focus—that of Chaminade undergraduate students.

The most recent Pew study supports the dominant nature of social media in our lives (March 1, 2018: http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/).  The majority of Americans now use Facebook, most of them on a daily basis.  The typical American uses 3 of the 8 major social media platforms, many multiple times daily, and on multiple platforms.

There are clear correlations with social media use and the decrease in close emotional relationships from roughly 2 close friends 20 years ago to 1 today.  Siloing–hanging out with those who reflect your very specific set of attitudes and values, to the exclusion of others, is normative.  Concern about image—the manipulation of images prior to posting, the emotional reactions to negative posts and/or defriending, are also normative.  In our student population the rates of clinically defined depression is staggeringly high, around 20%, and yet this is actually somewhat lower than comparable mainland studies which suggest 25% is the normative range.

While there is wide-spread agreement on the social and emotional costs of social media addiction/dependency (there is not much agreement on which it should be labeled as), there is no agreement on how we deal with it.  Most approaches are either naïve—‘just quit using your phone, go cold turkey’; or have limited persistence (such as not allowing phones in the workplace).

At some point users have to take control both of their behavior and of their world.  This is the goal of our Learning Modules which we have been developing, the most recent being the Creative Thinking module just distributed to our classes.

All this research is ongoing, and the playing field changes by the day—for instance the rapid growth of WhatsApp among certain groups [a very interesting finding in the Why We Post study]; shifting gender-age patterns in app usage; and the lack of development of social norms on both acceptable phone use and acceptable social media behavior.  So much of the material presented this year will change by next year, and we are constantly designing new and hopefully more effective Learning Modules to help students deal with all these issues.

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