"What’s so important on your phone? Is it more important than me; is it more important than your family?" This interrogation is the opening salvo of an argument with the potential to run the girth of the planet. The unspoken answer to this rhetorical and adversarial question is “social media, that’s what’s more important than you”.
Initially we giggled at the idea that we might be "addicted" to social media. Tongue-in-cheek, BlackBerries were dubbed Crackberries – then the stories about broken relationships, failed exams and workplace terminations began to filter through. The laughter died down, a little.
A 2014 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour found social networking use correlated with poor marriage quality, troubled relationships and a higher likelihood of contemplating divorce. Social media has become the divorce lawyers' best friend. According to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, more than 80 per cent of legal representatives in US divorces reported a rise in the number of marriages ending linked to social media use.
For some people, social media use can have a negative impact on workplace productivity too. A Pew Research Center survey in Washington, DC in 2014 found 77 per cent of employees reported using social networking platforms at work, while 56 per cent admitted it also distracted them from work-related activities (college students, some of the world’s great procrastinators, will testify to this too). There are now countless cases of people being sacked for overusing, revealing too much or posting inappropriate content on those networks.
In each of the areas of relationships, employment and education, social media can have a dramatically negative impact. But surely this only happens to other people – those weak-willed individuals we read about on social media? It couldn’t possibly happen to us, could it? In many models of addiction, overcoming denial is the first step towards recovery.
One of the problems with seeing social networking as an addiction or disorder is that there are no established rules for usage. For food, we have a daily recommended caloric intake. But with social media, who decides how much is too much? Is there a line and how can we know when we've crossed it?
According to researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands, there is now a categorical answer to this question. The research team has developed a social media usage inventory, or questionnaire that corresponds to nine classic symptoms of addictive behaviours (preoccupation, withdrawal, tolerance, displacement, problems, escape, conflict and deception). They argue that if five or more of the nine symptoms are present, then you may have SMD, or social media disorder.
Published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, the SMD checklist assesses displacement by asking: "During the past year, have you regularly neglected other activities (such as hobbies or sport) because you wanted to use social media?" Similarly, the question assessing the escape category asks: "During the past year, have you often used social media to escape negative feelings?" A score of five or more is problematic. Among a sample of 873 teenagers, more than 100 (11.6 per cent) scored above the diagnostic cut-off.
Whether or not SMD becomes an accepted psychological condition, only time will tell. However, it is undeniable that excessive use can result in social and occupational problems for some of us. How can we prevent such issues and what can we do to promote sensible, healthy usage?
One idea is to develop authoritative, evidence-based guidance, analogous to that of the food pyramid. Since social media usage is essentially an attention exchange activity, we can call the guidelines the attention pyramid. We could propose what a healthy attention diet might look like, striking a balance between categories such as face-to-face communication, reading published works, self-reflection and social networking. Social media use, like fats and sugars, should sit at the top of the pyramid, consumed only sparingly as part of a healthy attention-focused diet.
The attention pyramid is just one idea. Our social media use – and abuse – is one we need to carefully monitor and measure.