Hooked on Snapchat? Understanding behavioural addictions

Erin Macpherson
16 March 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/CandyBoxImages

Did you know? A study of university students in Finland found that women spent an average of 600 minutes per day on their phone, including 95 minutes texting and 39 minutes checking Facebook. The average for men was only 459 minutes. Do you constantly check your phone for new messages? Do you take selfies instead of cleaning up your room? You’re not alone! More than 80% of high school students report using some form of social media every single day. But could your Snapchat obsession turn into a medical problem? Can social media be addictive in a similar way to substances like alcohol and narcoticas?

Broadly speaking, addiction means you continue to do something even though it is harmful for you or others. So far, only one behavioural addition—excessive gambling—has been listed as a disorder in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the handbook that North American doctors use to diagnose psychological disorders. However, more and more research is being done on whether other behaviours can lead to addictions as well. Examples include shopping, eating, sex, video gaming, and exercising.

Dopamine and serotonin pathways in the brain. Click image to enlarge (Wikimedia Commons/NIH)

Whether they involve smoking or gambling, all addictions “hijack” your brain’s natural reward system. By producing feelings of pleasure, your brain teaches you to associate and seek out situations that activate a particular “reward pathway” in our brain. In particular, behaviours that satisfy basic needs, such as nourishment and social interaction, activate reward pathways and motivate you to perform those behaviours again in the future.

A neurotransmitter is a chemical released by neurons to allow them to communicate with each other. Addiction mainly involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, but other neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate, also plays an important role. Most dopamine is released from a part of the brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) into a bundle of neurons called the nucleus accumbens, producing feelings of pleasure.

Other parts of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus help you remember where and when you received a reward. Eventually, you start to associate the situation where you got the reward with the reward itself. For example, you might get a surge of dopamine when you see the McDonald’s sign as opposed to when you’re actually eating a burger. Or you might get a feeling of pleasure just by looking at your phone, even without interacting with someone through a text.

Did you know? A 1954 experiment found that rats with an electrode in the nucleus accumbens would press a lever up to 2000 times an hour to stimulate this “pleasure centre” of the brain. They even gave up eating and resting! Although reward pathways are usually very helpful, when an addiction develops you begin to crave the reward too much. You become anxious or sad until you get it. You start to need more dopamine to reach the same level of positive feeling. Consider these characteristics of addiction. Do any of them apply to you and your social media use?

Excessive use: Do you ignore other things you should be doing? Do you lose track of how much time you are spending on social media? Withdrawal: Do you feel angry, annoyed, or sad when you can’t use social media? Tolerance: Do you need to keep using social media more and more to get the same positive feeling? Persistence despite negative effects: Does your social media use cause arguments with your parents, cause you to lie, make you tired, isolate you from family and friends, or interfere with school?

There are definitely positive uses of social media and related technologies. such as smart phones. But when behaviour starts to pose a risk to yourself and others, it is no longer beneficial. For example, 33% of Ontario students in Grades 10-12 and a full 46% of Grade 12 students admitted to texting while driving at least once! What can you do to make sure that the technology you use is helpful and not harmful?

Learn more!

Learn more!

Nearly 50 per cent of grade 12 students in Ontario report texting while driving, CAMH youth survey finds (2014)
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Press release discussing the results of a survey of Ontario high school students dealing with risk behaviours and physical health, self-esteem and suicide, and home and school life.

The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students (2014)
J. A. Roberts, L. H. P. Yaya & Chris Manolis, Journal of Behavioral Addictions 3

Scientific article on the results of a study of 164 undergraduate students who completed a questionnaire on their cell-phone habits.

Introduction to behavioral addictions (2010)

J. E. Grant, M. N. Potenza, A. Weinstein & D. A. Gorelick, The American journal of drug and alcohol abuse 36
Scientific article providing a general introduction to the field of behavioural addictions.

The Addicted Brain (2009)
Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Medical School

General introduction to addiction and the brain’s reward system, with references.

Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction (2008)
Jerald Block, American Journal of Psychiatry 165

Editorial on issues related to Internet addiction that need to be considered by the committees preparing the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Erin Macpherson

Originally from London, ON, I did an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in neuroscience and psychology. I am now finishing a Master’s of Science at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, where I also help to coordinate the Let’s Talk Science Outreach program there. I love science because it’s an awesome way to explore and learn more about the world I live in! In my spare time I like to hike, bike, play water polo, cook, and travel to new places!

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