I’ll give you one guess was “X” is. According to a recent study

  • 69% of young people are addicted to X
  • They spend a lot of time thinking about doing X
  • They often spend more time doing X than they initially intended
  • They have ignored their family members because of X
  • They feel irritable if they’re unable to do X
  • They find it difficult to resist doing X

Got your guess ready?

Surprise! It’s not social media.

The correct answer: spending time with friends.

But wait, you’re thinking, is there there actually such a thing as addiction to spending time with friends? And the correct answer to that is…of course not.

So, what’s the deal with this study?

Oh boy, we are in for a treat

If you are a person who occasionally reads things, or talks to people, or generally exists in the world, you’ve heard discussion of “social media addiction.”

Studies typically measure social media addiction by starting with the established medical criteria for diagnosing an addiction (e.g., to substances or gambling). These criteria include things like preoccupation (i.e., can’t stop thinking about it), withdrawal (i.e., feel bad when you can’t use it), and external consequences (i.e., use has caused other problems in your life). Then, they develop a questionnaire, where they ask people whether these criteria apply to them (e.g., In the past year, have you often felt bad when you couldn’t use social media?). If they say “yes” to enough of these items, they’re classified as having a social media addiction.

Enter: the study we’re talking about today. In it, the authors use this same procedure commonly used in social media addiction studies. But instead of measuring social media addiction, they develop a questionnaire assessing “offline friend addiction” (i.e., addiction to spending time with friends).

Here’s the kicker: the whole thing is satire.

Wait, you can do that?

Apparently, yes. In the abstract, the authors explicitly refer to the study as “satirical research.” This is a thing I didn’t know was possible in academia and, honestly, I am here for it.

The study, led by researchers at 11 different universities across the U.K.,

is titled Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts?

It was actually published a couple years ago, but hasn’t gotten as much attention as (I think) it deserves. This may be because it came out on March 18, 2020. You might remember that there were other things happening in the news at that time.

So, what did they actually do?

Though the entire premise of the study is satirical, the methodology is extremely real. The authors pre-registered the study. They got IRB approval. They collected data from over 800 college students. They conducted rigorous statistical tests of reliability and validity. The entire first half of the paper is written seriously, with grave references to “the danger of increased offline social behavior.”

Talk about commitment to the bit.

The big reveal comes in the final paragraphs of the paper (called the “Discussion” section in academic parlance).

One would hopefully recognize, the authors write, that conceptually (and indeed pragmatically) this measure is sardonic.

What’s strange—and telling—is how much the results mimic those of studies claiming to assess social media addiction. The authors reworded 37 items, taken from various measures of social media addiction, to ask about spending time with friends, instead of social media. A total of 807 college students from across 11 U.K. universities answered these items on a scale of 1 (for Strongly Disagree) to 5 (for Strongly Agree). For example:

  • I spend a lot of time thinking about spending time with friends.
  • I have spent more time with friends than I initially intended.
  • I spend time with friends in order to forget about personal problems.
  • I become irritable if I am unable to spend time with friends.
  • I have spent so much time with friends that it has had a negative impact on my job or studies.

Using criteria similar to social media addiction studies, participants were classified as “addicted” if they scored a 3 or higher on 19 out of 37 items. The result? 69% of participants were found to be addicted to spending time with their friends.

What does this all mean?

The concept of social media addiction has been hotly debated. As it currently stands, a formal diagnosis of social media addiction does not exist. In fact, only one “behavioral addiction” (i.e., addiction to a behavior—in this case, gambling—rather than a substance like drugs or alcohol) is actually considered a diagnosable mental illness in the U.S.

Studies of social media addiction have often adapted the criteria for other addictions to apply to social media, instead.

This seems logical, of course. Why not take what we know from another problematic behavior and just apply it to social media?

Well, the current study lays bare the limitations of that approach. It turns out, it’s easy to show that a behavior is “pathological” when we go in with assumptions about that behavior. “Offline friend addiction” doesn’t exist because we all intuitively recognize that spending time with friends is…fine. When it comes to social media, though, the idea that one might “spend a lot of time thinking about it” sounds scary. We forget that some of what’s happening on social media might actually be, well, not so different from spending time with friends.

Of course, there are many teens and adults who are spending too much time on social media, and who probably would be better off spending that time on other things. There are many aspects of social media that are far more problematic than spending time with friends offline, in terms of overall well-being. But, as this study shows, questionnaires that inherently equate social media use with alcoholism or drug dependence may not be the best way to assess that.

It’s also easy to “diagnose” someone with a pathological behavior when the criteria is somewhat arbitrary—a certain number of items marked at a certain level deemed “high enough” by the researchers. A norms-based approach, which takes into account average levels of the behavior in the population to determine deviation from the norm, likely makes more sense.

Does this mean that there is no such thing as problematic or even “addictive” social media use? In my mind, no. I certainly do think that some people go beyond using social media “too much,” to the point where their use is compulsive, interferes significantly with their day-to-day lives and functioning, and is distressing and unwanted for them.

What it does mean is that we need to be careful in how we assess, talk about, and label issues of social media “addiction.”

As the authors say in one of the final sentences of the paper: We urge caution, patience, and collaboration with informed psychiatric practice before developing novel psychopathologies. 

In formal academic terms, this is what we call a “mic drop.”

So, there is no such thing as “friend addiction,” but for all you but-what-about…?-ers out there (of which I am one)—of course, there are people who are maybe a bit too preoccupied with spending time with their friends, or unable to be alone, or overly dependent on other people. This is a different thing, though.

Full citation: Satchell, L.P. et al. (2021). Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts? Behavior Research Methods.

When I saw this article, my first thought was: 11 different universities? How did these people even find each other? Upon further digging, I was extremely pleasantly surprised to learn that this group of researchers call themselves the REDTEAM (Researching Engagement in Digital and Technological Environments for Advancing Measurement). So, I assume it’s kind of an Avengers situation? Or maybe there’s some kind of REDTEAM Assemble signal when it’s time to fight poor psychiatric measurement practices?

You know how you have that one friend where you can never quite tell if they’re joking? And you’re never totally sure whether to laugh, but you also don’t want to look like the loser who wasn’t in on the joke? Reading this paper was kind of like that.

Yes, I googled the word “sardonic.” And yes, in fact, the first thing that comes up is this picture of Fran Lebowitz. Thanks for asking.

Given that the first version of this paper came out on March 18, 2020, some of the items now feel a bit prophetic (e.g., I become irritable if I am unable to spend time with friends). It was around this time that my husband and I moved into a strange, pandemic-inspired commune-type situation with a few of my siblings and their partners, and replaced “spending time with friends” with things like “disinfecting groceries” and “watching Tiger King.”

Formal diagnoses of mental illness in the U.S. are based on the classification system laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a giant book of all recognized disorders and their diagnostic criteria.

Another fun thing I learned from this paper is the phrase jingle-jangle fallacy. According to WikipediaJingle-jangle fallacies are erroneous assumptions that either two different things are the same because they bear the same name (jingle fallacy); or two identical or almost identical things are different because they are labeled differently (jangle fallacy). I know. Surprisingly unrelated to Christmas carols.

It’s also the case that a significant number of young people themselves report feeling addicted to social media—though this is different from actually having an “addiction” in the diagnostic sense. See, for example, this study, in which 45% of adolescent girls who use TikTok (45%) say they feel “addicted” to the platform or end up using it for a longer period of time than they originally planned at least once a week, as do roughly one in three who use Snapchat (37%), YouTube (34%), and Instagram (33%).

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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