Social Media is addictive because AI learns to know users better than they know themselves- and manipulate them for the simple goal of more clicks. This is a classic example of an AI goal that is not beneficial to humans (but is beneficial for profits via an addicted user)


THE GUARDIAN. Revealed: almost half of British teens feel addicted to social media, study says. 

Exclusive: Millennium Cohort’s finding raises questions about why a large proportion has a difficult relationship with social media

Almost half of British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media, according to findings that come amid mounting pressure for big tech companies to be held accountable for the impact of their platforms on users.

The finding, from the Millennium Cohort study, adds to evidence that many people feel they have lost control over their use of digital interactive media. It comes as dozens of US states are suing Instagram and its parent company, Meta, accusing them of contributing to a youth mental health crisis and as the EU has ushered in major reforms designed to give consumers more control over smartphone apps.

The latest research, by Dr Amy Orben’s team at the University of Cambridge, used data from the Millennium Cohort study which is tracking the lives of about 19,000 people born in 2000-2002 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. When the cohort were aged 16-18 they were asked, for the first time, about social media use. Of the 7,000 people who responded, 48% said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I think I am addicted to social media”. A higher proportion of girls (57%) agreed compared to boys (37%), according to the data shared with the Guardian.

Scientists said this did not mean that these people are actually suffering from a clinical addiction, but that expressing a perceived lack of control suggests a problematic relationship.

“We’re not saying the people who say they feel addicted are addicted,” said Georgia Turner, a graduate student leading the analysis. “Self-perceived social media addiction is not [necessarily] the same as drug addiction. But it’s not a nice feeling to feel you don’t have agency over your own behaviour. It’s quite striking that so many people feel like that and it can’t it be that good.”

There has been growing concern about the potential for digital technologies to drive compulsive behaviours, with the World Health Organization establishing “gaming disorder” as a diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases. Earlier this year, the US surgeon general issued a rare public health advisory on the risks that social media may pose to young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

However, the evidence underpinning these public health concerns is mixed, with one recent study on Facebook use challenging claims that social media is psychologically harmful and the clinical classification of behaviours linked to digital technology remaining contentious among experts.

“Social media research has largely assumed that [so-called] social media addiction is going to follow the same framework as drug addiction,” said Turner. Orben’s team and others argue that this is likely to be oversimplistic and are investigating whether the teenagers cluster into groups whose behaviour can be predicted by other personality traits.

It could be that, for some, their relationship is akin to a behavioural addiction, but for others their use could be driven by compulsive checking, others may be relying on it to cope with negative life experiences, and others may simply be responding to negative social perceptions about “wasting time” on social media.

Dr Michael Rich, director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston children’s hospital, said the latest findings align with his centre’s clinical experience that a significant portion of young people are struggling with “problematic interactive media use” (Pimu), uncontrolled use of interactive media of all kinds, including social media, but also gaming, pornography and “information-bingeing – endlessly linked short videos, blogs, aggregate sites”.

Pimu is normally underpinned by an underlying psychological struggle, with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), anxiety, depression or another mood disorder, according to Rich. “These young people are seeking out the responsive interactivity of other humans or AI bots as a coping mechanism,” he said. “When we identify and treat the underlying disorder, Pimu spontaneously resolves or becomes treatable with behavioural modification.”

Rich said he discouraged the word “addiction”, because it is stigmatising and also because proportionate use of the internet is integral to everyday life, meaning that complete abstinence is not normally the right solution.

“It could be that there are different pathways to saying yes and it’s not that everyone feels they’re addicted in the same way,” said Turner, adding that the question was not merely a philosophical discussion about addiction, but about finding appropriate interventions where needed. “It’s about helping people,” she said. “If that’s not really what’s causing their problems, we can’t help them.”

Dr Andres Roman-Urrestarazu, a psychiatrist at the University of Cambridge and a UK lead for Bootstrap, a pan-European trial on problematic use of the internet, said that policies were needed that go beyond clinical solutions for individuals.

“Social media and major tech companies remain largely unregulated in the way they engage with people,” he said. “What I find interesting is that algorithms that are designed to increase sales tend to be particularly noxious and tend to produce these types of products that put vulnerable people at danger,” he said. “We need to push for algorithmic transparency.”

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