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Facebook addiction – is it a real problem?

Tagged In:  Health

We all know people whose lives seem to revolve around social media. But is there a real danger of harmful addiction? The NHS Choices website has been assessing the evidence.

Constantly checking your smartphone or tablet? Eager to see the latest 'likes', 'shares' and messages on your Facebook page? If so, are you just naturally a curious and interactive person? Or could you actually have an addiction?

Recently the Twittersphere and blogosphere were afire with scare stories about social media addiction, seemingly in response to widespread sharing of research (actually published in 2014) showing comparisons between the way some people's brains react to Facebook and the effects of substance addiction. "Facebook has a similar effect on your brain as COCAINE," shouted a Daily Mail headline, while the Telegraph quoted unnamed 'academics' saying that Twitter and Facebook are 'more addictive than tobacco or alcohol'.

In February an article on the NHS Choices website sought to bring some balance to the debate, pointing out that the research was based on a very small sample and 'leaves more questions than it answers about the true nature of the brain's dependence, or otherwise, on social media'. Furthermore, the researchers themselves questioned whether the term 'addiction' was an appropriate one and asserted that 'problematic' use of Facebook could be overcome relatively easily with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Doctors, psychiatrists and mental health nurses will no doubt have taken some comfort from this, particularly if they had been alarmed by the Daily Mail's article of 24 March, headed 'Facebook and Twitter could lead to a mental health timebomb'. This article referred to research by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine showing that social media sites could be fuelling internet addiction which, they claimed, was closely associated with depression.

Participants in the study who checked social media most frequently were 2.7 times more likely to be depressed than those who did so least frequently.

In 2012, researchers in Norway published the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS) which focuses on six key questions, such as whether the respondent feels an urge to use Facebook more and more, uses it to forget about personal problems and has tried to cut down but can't. However, Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, suggested that the tool was too specific. "There is a big difference between addictions on the Internet and addiction to the internet, " he said. "What is needed now is a psychometrically validated tool that specifically assesses social networking addiction, rather than Facebook use."

This makes sense; after all, a ‘Facebook addiction’, if there even is one, is fundamentally different to ‘social network addiction’. Facebook has become a very specific website where a broad range of online activities take place. These serve a multitude of different purposes for users; not least of all keeping busy professionals socially connected.
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