Perth University student Emma* considers herself a social media addict.

Whether she's trawling her Facebook news feed, uploading a photo on Instagram, or posting a tweet, she finds there's no shortage of ways to waste time on social media.

"I log onto my Facebook account on my phone about every 20 minutes, and sometimes it's purely out of habit," she said.

"Even when I have nothing to post myself, and nothing in particular to check, I find myself scrolling through my feed."

Emma, 24, estimates that she spends about four hours a day on social media sites, and says at times it has been detrimental to her study.

She admits most of the time she is procrastinating, but sites like Twitter and Facebook also allow her to keep up with what is happening.

Her compulsion is spurred on by the rush of excitement she gets when people "like" her posts or when others mention her in their updates.

"I think it gives you a sense of acceptance, I guess a feeling that others find you interesting or likeable," she said.

So when does social media go from being a hobby to becoming an addiction?

'Social media addiction' has been recognised as an official condition in the UK, with London clinics treating hundreds of sufferers a year.

It follows a study from the University of Chicago that found social media can be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.

The research found social media features such as 'retweets' and "likes" give users a boost of feel-good brain chemicals, while a lack of endorsement can provoke anger and anxiety.

But the problem is not confined to the UK and the US.

Close to home

Perth psychologist Tony White says he has treated 30 to 40 people who are addicted to social media.

Most of them have been adolescents.

"Usually it's the parents who bring them, like with any addiction, the person using it doesn't see it as a problem," he said.

Mr White believes from a psychological perspective, social media use only becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with a person's day-to-day life.

"So, if a teenager spends long periods of time on the computer, then that's going to interfere with things like their real time social life, they get fat and things like that, and it can interfere with their relationship with their parents, it becomes a source of conflict," he said.

"But the compulsion is so strong to do that, that the teenager will still do the activity even though it's harming them in other areas of their life.

"They have a strong urge inside them and they will spend a lot of time, if they're not actually doing it, they'll spend the time thinking about it".

So how much social media is too much?

"I guess a couple of hours a day is probably okay, if you're getting up to 5, 6, 7 hours then that is a lot of time to be spending on a computer every day."

But not everyone is convinced that labelling excessive social media use as an 'addiction' is a positive step.

No problem

Social media expert Professor Matthew Allen says the idea of "internet addiction" goes back to the 1990s, but he doesn't agree that it is abnormal or unhealthy.

"I don't actually think it's a problem," he said.

"We see many more significant problems of addictions in our society with much more serious consequences; particularly with drugs, alcohol and gambling, the consequences of those are very serious.

"I am yet to see substantial evidence that there is a widespread problem with the use of the internet which might be understood as addiction.

"Indeed it's possible that people who are compulsively using internet technologies are actually manifesting some other underlying problem - a mental or an emotional imbalance."

Professor Allen says he agrees that some people use social media sites too much, but the challenge is deciding where to draw the line.

He says people who have grown up with the internet consider it part of their daily lives, and their idea of how much internet use is okay, may be somewhat different to older generations.

He believes instead of needing medical or psychological intervention, individuals who have an obsessive urge to use social media should simply assess their own behaviour.

"Everyone who uses social media needs from time to time to stop and think 'Am I getting something out of this and what am I productively contributing to the rich computer mediated lives that we now lead?'"

"If people perhaps once a month or once a week were to stop and lean back from the keyboard and ask themselves 'what am I getting out of this, what else can I do?'

"Then they may well find a solution to a problem that may be lurking there but I don't think it is particularly significant yet."

 

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