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ODU Psychologist Warns About the Newest Addiction: Social Media

By Noell Saunders

The word "addiction" is commonly associated with alcohol and drugs. But a new type of addiction has emerged in the last two decades: addiction to social media.

Jason Parker, a senior lecturer in Old Dominion University's Department of Psychology, said addiction to social media may not cause physical harm the way addictions to tobacco and alcohol do. But it could trigger long-term damage to emotions, behavior and relationships.

"Many of the behaviors are the same as you would see with a chemical substance, but with the behavioral dependence part of it instead," he said.

Parker said similarities between social media and substance abuse addiction can be seen by looking through the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

"For example, one criterion is 'a great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance,'" he said. "Well, how many times have you heard of a social media user fretting to find an internet connection or good signal?"

Millennials, born between 1984 and 2005, have embraced the digital age with blog posts, selfies and the need to keep up with the news and latest gossip -- an all-too-familiar trend, Parker said.

"This isn't really any different than our grandparents gossiping at the fence," he said. "I don't think 'keeping up with the Joneses' is a new concept. We have just found a new outlet. Social media is just another way to do the same thing."

Parker said his main concern is that younger social media users could be missing out on important developmental skills and could also experience the fear of an "imaginary audience."

"When I first studied developmental psychology, there was something called an 'imaginary audience,' where adolescents would be terrified that everyone would know when anything bad or embarrassing happened. Twenty years ago, that was a myth, and today, it is called Facebook. Being embarrassed or shamed is a much more powerful threat today."

As with some other potentially addictive substances like alcohol, Parker said moderation is the key to avoiding addiction.

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