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Social Media Withdrawal Symptoms Differ in Older and Younger People

The effects of withdrawal from our phones affects us in different ways.

Key points

  • The nature of digital withdrawal effects differs depending on how a person uses their technology.
  • One study found that older participants reported distress upon removing their mobile devices, while younger people reported feeling better.
  • High levels of digital access can be damaging to psychological wellbeing.
Thom Holmes/Unsplash
Source: Thom Holmes/Unsplash

Over the past two decades, many people have outlined concerns about the harms of overusing digital technology. Although not a diagnosis, these concerns were initially expressed in terms of "internet addiction" and then, more broadly, as "problematic internet use." As social media became a dominant way in which people communicate, similar concerns were raised about the harms of overusing social media.

The use of these terms highlights the issues that some people experience but also suggests that there is a single problem, which all who suffer from it share. This is just not the case. Research suggests that there are differences in the harmful impacts of social media use, including the ways people experience withdrawal effects.

There are many ways in which digital technology overuse can lead to problems. Some people experience damage to their lives because their habitual use of social media excludes other important activities.

Importantly, a habit and an addiction are not the same thing.1 An addiction will, minimally, involve some form of withdrawal effect when the activity cannot be accessed. However, the withdrawal effects that may be experienced are not the same across all addictions. We can understand this quite easily when we think of people stopping the use of various substances. Stopping the use of a depressant will produce different withdrawal effects from stopping the use of a stimulant. The withdrawal effects are experienced, speaking very generally, as the opposite of the drug's effects. Recent laboratory-based work has now found that the nature of social media withdrawal effects differs between different uses.2

It has been some time since the initial work was published outlining the existence of withdrawal symptoms for the internet.3 This work demonstrated that when some people are stopped from using the internet, they demonstrate both psychological3 and physical4 ill effects. The most common psychological responses noted on cessation of internet activity were increases in anxiety and depression,3 which worsen the longer the disconnection goes on.5

These psychological experiences are mirrored in a range of physiological effects—such as an increase in heart rate and galvanic skin response—that follow the same time-course as the psychological reports.4,5

Some of these reports are now nearly a decade old,3 and the world of digital communication has moved on. Many people now access their digital tools through mobile devices rather than the static desktop PCs on which much of the initial work was conducted. Moreover, the age at which people start to access digital resources has become younger and younger.

Finally, there are differences in the reasons driving this digital access—older people may need it for their work. In contrast, younger people may engage in a range of activities on their phones or tablets other than work. These considerations mean that it is unclear whether the original research can be generalised to the new digital situation.

A Comparison of Withdrawal Effects

A recent study2 examined whether the psychological distress produced by removing a mobile device would be the same for younger and older individuals, comparing those under and over 18 years old. This study also examined whether the reasons for accessing a mobile device would play a role in any effects seen when connection discontinued, comparing those who use their device primarily for social media reasons with those using the device for its other functions.

In the study, 101 mobile device users, aged between 12 and 30 years, participated.2 Each participant had their levels of psychological distress measured just before the study. Then, researchers ascertained the typical uses of their device (e.g., for social media or other reasons). The participants then used their mobile phones for their usual functions for 15 minutes. The participants were then asked to stop using their devices, which they did not know would happen, and their psychological distress was measured again.

For those whose main use of the phone was social media, cessation of using the device produced stronger withdrawal effects than those who used the mobile device for other purposes—participants who used social media a lot reported a greater change in their psychological state than those who did not use social media.2

However, characterising the nature of this psychological change is not straightforward, and younger and older participants differed in the nature of the withdrawal effects that they reported.2 Older participants reported that they experienced increased psychological distress when told to stop using their phones.

This finding is very similar to that noted with the old-fashioned internet use reported ten years ago.3 In contrast, younger participants reported that they experienced decreased psychological distress upon the removal of their phones. They said that they felt better—less anxious and less depressed after they stopped using their mobile devices.

Differences in Tech Usage

These data suggest that not being able to use your mobile device impacts your psychological state, but it does so differentially, depending on the nature of your usage and your age.2

Of course, the reasons underlying the social media withdrawal in younger and older people require further exploration. Older people may have more stressful lives and need an escape, so they use their phones like a sedative. In contrast, younger people may be seeking excitement, so they use their mobile device like a stimulant.

The importance of mobile devices for older adults, perhaps using them for work, e-mails, bills, banking, compared to younger users, who perhaps have, predominately, recreational usage, may also have influenced the nature of withdrawal effects. Thus, although the effect of age is indicative of an interesting variable impacting social media withdrawal, the conclusions must remain speculative, as differences may reflect reasons other than age.

Whatever the eventual explanation of these different social media withdrawal effects, these results illustrate two essential points. First, high levels of digital access, whether through traditional PCs or mobile devices, can damage psychological well-being. Some of this harm appears similar to that seen in substance addictions in that there are withdrawal effects. Second, the withdrawal effects of being without our devices may be due to very different aspects of the digital world.

References

1. Reed, P. (2019). Are digital overuse problems habits or addictions? Psychology Today. Are Digital Overuse Problems Habits or Addictions? | Psychology Today United Kingdom

2. Truzoli, R., Magistrati, L., Viganò, C., Conte, S. Osborne, L.A., & Reed, P. (2022). Social media users potentially experience different withdrawal symptoms to non-social media users. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction.

3. Romano, M., Osborne, L.A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2013). Differential psychological impact of internet exposure on internet addicts. PloS ONE, 8(2), e55162.

4. Reed, P., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Osborne, L.A., Viganò, C., & Truzoli, R. (2017). Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users. PloS ONE, 12(5), e0178480.

5. Romano, M., Roaro, A., Re, F., Osborne, L.A., Truzoli, R., & Reed, P. (2017). Problematic internet users' skin conductance and anxiety increase after exposure to the internet. Addictive Behaviors, 75, 70-74.

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