Addiction

Are You Addicted to Your Friends?

A new satirical study highlights problems with addiction classification.

Posted Sep 26, 2020

Priscilla du Preez (via Unsplash)
Socializing is a core aspect of being human.
Source: Priscilla du Preez (via Unsplash)

Think about the following question: Are you addicted to your friends?

This might sound like a strange question, but this is a question asked and answered in a new paper published this week in the leading journal Behavior Research Methods. In a large study with more than 800 participants, a team led by Dr. Liam Satchell of the University of Winchester took a satirical swipe at large portions of the social media addiction literature to satirically study whether existing methods to classify addictions to social media could translate to offline friends.

Julian Gentilezza (via Unsplash)
Many behaviors - even selfie-taking - have been labeled as 'addictive'.
Source: Julian Gentilezza (via Unsplash)

The origins of this research go back around 18 months, with a chance conversation between the authors about the classification of a range of behavioral "addictions" to technologies such as Facebook, Instagram, smartphones, the Internet, and selfie-taking

They (or "we," given that I am one of the senior authors on the paper) wondered whether some of the emerging literature in these areas really represented "addiction," or if some people just take normal social interactions to an extreme in technological contexts.

How is "Social Media Addiction" Classified?

Looking at the classification of "addiction," studies typically make use of a "polythetic" scoring system to label participants as "addicts." According to Andreassen and colleagues' study on Facebook addiction, for example, this means that if somebody score at the mid-point or above (i.e., "neither agree nor disagree" or higher) on at least half of the items on an addiction questionnaire, they are classified as "addicts."

Example items on their Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale ask people how often they have done the following:

  • Thought a lot about what has happened on Facebook recently
  • Used Facebook in order to reduce restlessness
  • Become irritable if you have been prohibited from using Facebook
  • Given less priority to hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of Facebook

Given that this measure contains 18 items, if somebody suggested that 10 items were relevant "sometimes" in the past year, they would be classified as being a "Facebook addict."

As a result, it's possible that scales measuring "problematic social media use" can use loose scoring techniques to contribute to normal social behaviors being classified as addictions in need of intervention. Could it be, for example, that "problematic" Facebook use is simply reflective of a normal human need for social contact, just applied to the hyper-connected technologically-driven modern environment?

Satire as a Form of Study

A study that started as a joke soon became a serious study designed to unveil the shortcomings of some established social addition research.

The approach was simple:

  1. Take some questionnaires that report measuring different forms of addiction to social media.
  2. Replace "Facebook" or "social media" with the phrase "offline friends."
  3. Measure some constructs related to participants' personality profiles and risk-taking behaviors

Throughout this study, the team committed to using the established scoring procedures and methodological norms for the social media addiction field. Furthermore, all plans for the study were pre-registered, the data are shared, and all of the analysis code is available to download via the project's Open Science Framework webpage. These open science and transparency credentials are a very positive step in a field that is historically quite guarded about its scale development methods and data sharing practices.

(Almost) Everyone's "Addicted"!

After analyzing the draft of the "Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire" (or O-FAQ), the items held together relatively well under three headings:

  1. Social rumination (e.g., “I often think about the times I’ve spent with friends.”)
  2. Life disruption (e.g., “I have ignored my current/previous partner(s) or family members to spend time with friends.”)
  3. Affective reactions (e.g., “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, supporting 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. "Affective reactions" were positive correlated with the emotional trait of neuroticism, and negatively correlated with conscientiousness.

These findings are interesting, as they give some credence to the idea that "offline friend addiction" (as measured by the O-FAQ) is correlated with expected personality constructs. Clearly, though, this "diagnosis" is sardonic—the study is not really claiming to have discovered a new behavioral addiction. Instead, it shows that anything can be viewed through the "addiction" lens.

Importantly, though, the polythetic addiction scoring procedure described above classified 558 of the 807 participants as being addicted to their offline friends.

That’s an offline-friend addiction prevalence rate of 69 percent.

If viewing this through the same lens of other social addiction researchers, it might be concluded that offline-friend addiction is an important and widespread public health issue. But let’s not do that. Clearly, this label is not serious, but it does highlight serious shortcomings in the behavioral addiction research literature.

What Does This Mean for the Addictions Literature?

What this new study demonstrates is that researchers can quickly produce farcical results when conceptualizing social media addiction. To seek out information about others, to crave interaction, and to turn to friends, family, and colleagues for support or companionship is to be a social being.

Austin Distel (via Unsplash)
High levels of social media use might just be reflective of normal socializing in the modern world.
Source: Austin Distel (via Unsplash)

Modern technology accelerates these processes, and current research approaches to social media "addiction" fail to demonstrate how these behaviors are unique from normal offline social behaviors. Put simply, it does not take into account the normal human striving for social interaction.

Without this, researchers risk diagnosing "addictions" on the basis of their own personal heuristics about how their questionnaires should be responded to.

This tongue-in-cheek project clearly does not call for a new diagnosis of "friend addiction." Instead, the development of the O-FAQ highlights the risks that are inherent in current social media addiction research. It, therefore, seems important for researchers working in this area to focus on testing what components of social media use are distinct to offline interaction, especially when pathologizing technologically-mediated behavior.

References

Satchell, L. P., Fido, D., Harper, C. A., Shaw, H., Davidson, B., Ellis, D. A., ..., & Pavetich, M. (2020). Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts? Behavior Research Methods. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-020-01462-9