Social media 'addiction' : the absence of an attentional bias to social media stimuli

Thomson, K. and Hunter, S. C. and Butler, S. H. and Robertson, D. J. (2021) Social media 'addiction' : the absence of an attentional bias to social media stimuli. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 10 (2). pp. 302-313. (

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Background and aims: Social media use has become a ubiquitous part of society, with 3.8 billion users worldwide. While research has shown that there are positive aspects to social media engagement (e.g. feelings of social connectedness and wellbeing), much of the focus has been on the negative mental health outcomes which are associated with excessive use (e.g. higher levels of depression/anxiety). While the evidence to support such negative associations is mixed, there is a growing debate within the literature as to whether excessive levels of social media use should become a clinically defined addictive behaviour. Methods: Here we assess whether one hallmark of addiction, the priority processing of addiction related stimuli known as an ‘attentional bias’, is evident in a group of social media users (N 5 100). Using mock iPhone displays, we test whether social media stimuli preferentially capture users’ attention and whether the level of bias can be predicted by platform use (self-report, objective smartphone usage data), and whether it is associated with scores on established measures of social media engagement (SMES) and social media ‘addiction’ severity scales (BSNAS, SMAQ). Results: Our findings do not provide support for a social media specific attentional bias. While there was a large range of individual differences in our measures of use, engagement, and ‘addictive’ severity, these were not predictive of, or associated with, individual differences in the magnitude of attentional capture by social media stimuli. Conclusions: More research is required before social media use can be definitively placed within an addiction framework.