People at-risk for Facebook addiction have a distorted sense of time, study finds

Our perception of time could serve as a “useful marker” of whether we’re at-risk for social media addiction, according to a new study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

The research found evidence that people at-risk for Facebook addiction have a distorted sense of time when deprived of the social networking website.

“I have been working on so-called social media ‘addiction’ and problematic behaviors for several years, because these issues seem to adversely affect many people, organizations and societies,” remarked study author Ofir Turel of the University of Southern California and California State University at Fullerton.

“We need to understand such issues and come up with interventions that can help users who present addiction-like symptoms in relation to social media use. One way to understand such phenomena is to build on the body of knowledge related to other addictions and problematic behaviors.”

“In prior works of mine, I did so by examining several behavioral and neurological aspects of social media ‘addiction’ that exist in other addictions,” Turel told PsyPost. “For example, at Antoine Bechara’s Decision Neuroscience Lab, we pointed to similarities and differences between the neural activation deficits and brain morphology changes presented in the case of social media ‘addiction’ and those that exist in other addictions and problematic behaviors.”

“Time perception is another piece of the puzzle; distortion of time perception is a hallmark feature of many addictive and problematic behaviors. For example, ‘addicted’ video gamers perceive their sessions to be shorter than they actually are; heavy smokers think that the between-cigarettes time interval is longer than it actually is; and obese people perceive that the between-meals time intervals are longer than they actually are.”

“This time-perception distortion creates stronger motivation and rationalization for over consumption,” Turel explained. “Hence, it is important to verify that it exists in the case of social media use and then develop interventions that can reduce it in those who are at-risk for ‘addiction’.”

In the study, 274 university students who used Facebook were required to complete an online survey that prevented them from using social media. The survey included the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, a questionnaire specifically designed to measure compulsive Facebook use.

The survey took about 29 minutes to finish on average. But those who scored higher on the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale tended to overestimate how long the survey took to complete.

“Our findings indicated that people at-risk for social media ‘addiction’ presented upward-biased time estimate of a task that prevented Facebook use and invoked Facebook reflections,” Turel told PsyPost. “They were deprived of use during this task but were also forced to reflect on their typically less successful self-control strategies they employ for trying to control their social media use.”

“Under these conditions, the task seemed significant longer than it actually was. In contrast, those who were classified as low/no-risk for social media ‘addiction’, presented downward time estimates. In other words, they enjoyed the task and thought it is shorter than it actually was.”

“This showed that (1) social media ‘addiction’ can be similar to other problematic and addictive behaviors in terms of time distortion, and (2) time distortion is useful classifier that can reasonably separate those who may be considered ‘addicted’ from those who are not,” Turel said.

“The take away for therapists is that time distortion tests may be added to the battery of techniques they use for trying to diagnose individuals as needing therapy, and perhaps even as part of the solution (more research on techniques for fixing biased time perception among ‘addicts’ is needed). For the vast majority of users who are not at-risk for ‘addiction’, awareness regarding time-distortion seems to be sufficient; such users can probably self-correct distorted time perception when they try to regulate their use, or just pay attention to use time.”

“More research, though, is needed for establishing such abilities and their efficacy for self-regulating social media use,” Turel remarked.

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“The existence, exact boundaries and diagnosis of social media addiction are still not fully agreed upon,” Turel explained. “We used here the term ‘addiction’ out of convenience and to be consistent with prior research. Nevertheless, future research may revisit our findings as the definition, boundaries and diagnosis of social media addictions are further developed.”

“For example, the cutoff we used for classifying people as being at-risk for ‘addiction’ may change over time. Second, we used a specific task and the generalizability of the findings to other tasks should be examined. For example, the task required 20-25 minutes to complete and it is not clear of the effect we observed can be replicated in different/longer/shorter tasks; or simply during longer abstinence periods in which no task is given. Third, we did not capture the neural underpinning of time perception distortion; these can be examined in the future.”

“With Internet Gaming disorder included in DSM-5 section 3, and Gaming Disorder included in ICD-11 published by the World Health Organization, it is time to consider more seriously the negative psychological effects of additional technologies, such as social media, on some people,” Turel told PsyPost. “Of course such technologies are beneficial for most users, but there is accumulating evidence that for some people, the use of such technologies can be harmful. I hence call for more research on problematic and addictive use of social media sites.”

The study, “Time distortion when users at-risk for social media addiction engage in non-social media tasks“, was co-authored by Damien Brevers and Antoine Bechara.