Examining the News

Are we addicted to social media?

Zen Ahmed


Questions of whether or not we’re “addicted” to social media have been getting louder in recent years. The impact of social media platforms on how we interact with one another, how we consume and share information, and how we ultimately spend our time has captured public attention and led to comparisons with other forms of substance abuse, including cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling. But how have discussions around social media use evolved over time? What themes are getting the most attention and is the public assigning blame?

To better understand the public narrative that is shaping debate, I used Quid, a natural language processing search and visualization tool, to analyze 4,080 unique news articles published over the past three years exclusively on social media addiction.

To start, it’s clear from the data that the term “social media addiction” is appearing more frequently in our daily vocabulary. During the three year period from Q1 2015 to Q1 2018, the volume of conversation around the topic increased 332%, with a notable spike in early 2018 when articles from The Guardian, BBC, and The New York Times used the word “addiction” when referring to high volumes of social media use.

With a bird’s eye view of the entire information network, Quid shows us that there is a close interrelationship between articles focused on detoxing from social media (18% of the total narrative), mental health and depression (15%), and the noticeable effects on our youth (7%). In fact, stories detailing mental health concerns serve as a sort of linguistic bridge between those narrating how we constantly check our social applications and the deleterious effects they have on our youth.

Together, these three themes represent a collective 40% of the conversation and play a clear and central role in the ongoing debate. If we dig deeper into the top keywords mentioned in these articles, Quid can highlight additional connections between them. For example, we can see the key demographics affected (students and teenagers), the specific mental health disorders mentioned (anxiety and depression) and common social media activities that are being performed (checking platforms and notifications of platform activity). From this analysis, we can infer that public narratives are linking persistent social media engagement with some of the mental health disorders that currently afflict younger generations of our society.

In terms of narrative share between platforms, the major players in the social media space—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube—are widely known, but I used Quid to examine top headlines around company-specific news and leadership. Quid found articles that covered declarations from former executives and shareholders at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Apple (due to the prevalence of the iPhone) that their products are addictive and that they support measures to protect our youth. Additionally, Quid highlighted news of memos being written to CEOs regarding these problems, as well as the formation of organizations such as The Center of Humane Technology, a non-profit comprised of former employees of Google, Facebook, and Mozilla that aims to promote awareness about the characteristically addictive tolls of technology.

One particular allegation surfaced by Quid—though it has been publicly refuted by Instagram’s CTO—claims that the platform actively exploits chemical responses in users to maximize engagement. Articles accuse Instagram of slowing notification of likes from low usage user groups to capitalize on each dopamine burst that occurs when we receive pings. Mentions of this physiologically guided strategy, true or not, shows that there is deep public interest in and concern about how companies might be trying to keep us engaged.

So, who leads the pack when it comes to unique story mentions? And is there any one company that is receiving the largest share of the blame? Quid found that Facebook was on top with 1,613 stories, followed by Instagram (1,209), Twitter (1,045), Snapchat (545), and YouTube (342), but what’s more revealing is how many co-mentions occur. The vast majority of stories mention more than one platform, emphasizing that the public doesn’t affiliate the problem with a single company, but rather see it as a sociological outcome. That said, regardless of who is mentioned, these stories are generally not associated with positive sentiment.

We already know the outsized role that social media plays in our daily lives; it’s even the primary tool of communication for our current President. Many of us will probably also admit that we spend way too much time on these apps and would be better served by limiting our usage or deleting them altogether. By exploring the topic with Quid, we can quickly identify the main themes that are driving discussion—notably the mental health issues linked to social media addiction and the prevalence of social media use among younger people—and how they connect. With Quid, we also found a demonstrable uptick in the volume of conversation over the last three years and the headlines that are capturing large portions of public debate.

Want to know more about how Quid can get you up to speed on a topic or industry? Get in touch at hi@quid.com.

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