Are You Addicted To Spending Time With Your Friends? Study Satirises Measures Of Social Media Addiction

By Matthew Warren

Do you often spend time with your friends in order to forget about personal problems? Do you think about your friends even when you’re not with them? Have you even gone as far as ignoring your family to spend time with your friends?

If you answered yes to these questions, you might fit the criteria for “offline friend addiction”, according to a new scale described in a preprint on PsyArxiv. Except, of course, that this notion is ridiculous. How can we be addicted to socialising, the fulfilment of one of our basic human needs?

Well, that’s pretty much the point of the new paper, written with tongue firmly in cheek. But behind it is a serious argument: although a scale for offline friend addiction is clearly absurd, there’s another, similar concept for which such scales have already been developed — social media addiction.

Some psychologists have expressed concern that social media is damaging our mental health or that we’ve become dependent on it, and as much as a third of the population can be classified as “addicted” using measures of social media addiction. But many aspects of social media fulfil our need to connect with others. So could people actually be addicted to socialising more generally, even when that occurs offline?

To investigate this not-entirely-serious question, Liam Satchell from the University of Winchester and colleagues developed the Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire, or O-FAQ.

The team created the scale by mimicking the process used to develop measures of social media addiction. Many of these were adapted from scales for other problems such as alcohol craving, replacing references to alcohol with references to social media. So the team decided to adapt these social media addiction scales in the same way: for instance, instead of respondents indicating if they “spent more time on Facebook than initially intended”, they were asked if they had “spent more time with friends than I initially intended”. The team ended up with a 37-item questionnaire, which 807 participants completed.

In the past, researchers have attempted to prove that social media addiction scales are valid by showing that they are associated with related measures, such as scales of problematic behaviour. So again, the authors did the same thing, “validating” the O-FAQ by demonstrating that participants’ scores were associated with risk-taking behaviour and certain personality traits. Some participants also completed the questionnaire again 28 days later, allowing the team to show that participants responded consistently across time.

Finally, to figure out how many people were friend addicts, the team again used criteria from past work, in which a person is considered “addicted” if they score at the midpoint or above on more than half of the questions. This revealed that 69% of respondents were addicted to their friends.

Should we be worried about this apparent friendship addiction crisis? Obviously not, say the researchers. “’Offline friend addiction’ is not an issue of concern for public health, but rather it is capturing experiences pertinent to social support, adaptation, and well-being across the lifespan,” they write.

But the point is that measures of social media addiction also capture these experiences. We might use social media to give or receive emotional support, for instance, or to hang out with our friends after a long day. Yet these scales don’t take this context into account. “What we have demonstrated here is that researchers can quickly produce farcical results when conceptualising social media as a distinctive entity that is unrelated to any other social context,” the team writes.

The work also highlights how easy — and potentially problematic — it is to claim that a scale is valid and use it to diagnose people when there aren’t actually any recognised diagnostic criteria to compare it against. Neither offline friend addiction nor social media addiction are formal psychiatric disorders.

Of course, in the current crisis the paper has taken on new relevance. Right now we are unable to see our “offline friends”, and for many of us the internet is the main means of communication. So perhaps, as psychologist Amy Orben suggested to us last month, we will begin to see the emergence of a more nuanced conversation about the benefits and risks of social media.

Interestingly, the team are not the first to develop a tongue-in-cheek measure to make a point about technology use. The term “Internet Addiction Disorder” was reportedly first coined in 1995 by psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, who posted satirical diagnostic criteria for the new “disorder” to a psychology bulletin board. “To medicalize every behavior by putting it into psychiatric nomenclature is ridiculous”, Goldberg told the New Yorker back in 1997. More than 20 years later, the authors of the new study conclude with a similar message: “We urge future social media research to focus on testing what components of social media use are distinct to offline social information seeking, especially when attempting to pathologise everyday behaviour.”

Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts? [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest