Study on social media withdrawal reveals some surprising findings

14 Nov 2018

Image: © leungchopan/

A new study looking at social media addiction makes comparisons with withdrawal symptoms that stem from addictive substances.

In the past decade or so, social media addiction has become a major focus for psychological studies as researchers attempt to find what effects the various outlets have on our mental wellbeing. On top of that, many who design these social networks admit that they use all of the tricks of the trade to keep eyeballs looking at screens for as long as possible.

The latest research from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Vienna has looked specifically at social media withdrawal symptoms and found a worrying similarity between these conditions and the ‘come down’ from addictive substances.

The study involving 152 people showed that as many as 90 of the participants found themselves unable to cope without social media for seven days and eventually ‘relapsed’. The common symptoms of withdrawal analysed in the study included significantly increased urges and an influence on whether the subjects were in a good mood.

“In particular, we saw a sharp increase in the desire – the craving – to use social media during the period of abstinence,” said the study’s author Prof Stefan Stieger. “This effect was even measurable when the subjects were allowed to use social media once again.”

Other symptoms included boredom and a sense of significantly stronger peer pressure to go back onto social media, the latter being attributable to the now commonly used acronym ‘FOMO’, or fear of missing out.

Reality could be worse

“This feeling of peer pressure is all the more astonishing because the subjects were allowed to use other communication channels such as SMS and email,” Stieger added.

Speaking of the study’s participants, Stieger said that the 152 people were aged between 18 and 80, with a substantial proportion of them being women (70pc). Of the total number, only 30pc were actually interested in initially taking part.

“This suggests that the people who registered to take part in the study were those who would find it easier to do without social media – meaning that their withdrawal symptoms could be milder than those in other people,” he said. “So the effect on other individuals could be much more pronounced.”

The most surprising finding of the research was that while the subjects were more likely to see a decrease in positive mood, they weren’t in a more negative mood either. This puts it completely at odds with the standard withdrawal experience seen with other addictions.

Writing in the research paper published online, Stieger said the findings show how deeply embedded social media is in day-to-day life, and consequently how difficult it is to stick to a commitment to do without social media, even among those who are prepared to do so.

Updated, 14 November 2018 at 3.50pm: This article has been amended to more accurately reflect the study’s findings on the comparison between social media withdrawals and withdrawal symptoms from other addictive substances.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic