person charging a smartphone while using social media

STUDY: Alcoholics and Social Media Addicts Have Similar Personality Traits


Sober Recovery Expert Author

person charging a smartphone while using social media

Addiction is typically associated with drugs or alcohol, but today there’s a new kind of addiction: compulsive social media activity. A recent study revealed that compulsive social media activity is predicted by some of the same characteristics of alcohol abuse.[1]

This research indicates that there are both similarities and differences in personality traits when comparing these addictive behaviors.

A recent study revealed that compulsive social media activity is predicted by some of the same characteristics of alcohol abuse.

Past data shows that social media is potentially addictive, and users may also be at greater risk for substance abuse.[2] In fact, the brains of compulsive Internet users appear to exhibit similar changes to brains in people with alcohol and drug addictions.

Social Media Addiction Research

The world today offers a variety of Social Networking Sites (referred to as SNS). These are virtual communities where users create individual public profiles, interact with others and “meet” people based on shared interests.

This global phenomenon has experienced incredible growth within the last few years. Statistics show that there is over an eight percent prevalence of compulsive social media news.[3]

Social media addiction is not medically recognized as a disease, however, there are specific behaviors associated with this newfound addiction. These behaviors include excessively engaging in social media, to the point that it interferes with everyday life.

A leading study reveals social media addiction leads to harmful behavior including withdrawal from human interaction, reduced academic achievement and relationship problems.[4],[5] The similarities to alcohol abuse cannot be denied.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol abusers typically continue drinking regardless of how harmful their behavior is to themselves or others. Nearly one-third of Americans engage in risky alcohol behavior in their lifetime.[6] The widely accepted definition of Alcohol Use Disorder(AUD) includes eleven criteria, based on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Any person meeting any two of these within a year is classified as having a diagnosis of AUD.[7]

  1. Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  2. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  3. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
  4. Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  5. Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  6. Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  8. Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  9. Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  10. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
    • a) A need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect
    • b) A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
    • a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol (refer to criteria A and B of the criteria set for alcohol withdrawal)
    • b) Alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Research Findings

Published research found that college students who binge drink are frequently posting on Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, while intoxicated and show signs of social media 'addiction.[8]

And in this most recent study, disordered social media use and risky alcohol use were both predicted by two major behaviors.[9]

  1. Narcissism (the tendency to think very highly of oneself, exhibit selfish behavior, and having little or no regard for others)
  2. Impulsivity (the tendency to act spontaneously, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the actions)

Additional important observations noted in this investigation:

  • Reward Sensitivity motivates obsessive social media activity. Rewards desired by compulsive social media users include views, comments or likes.
  • Alexithymia is common among alcohol abusers. This trait is the inability to identify and describe one's own or another person's emotions.

Research Implications

The powerful connection between these two addictions have implications for diagnosis and treatment. Like most dependency disorders, both compulsive social media and risky alcohol addiction appear to affect the pleasure center of the brain.

The addictive behaviors trigger a release of dopamine, increasing the pleasure received from the activity.

Both these addictions exhibit three similar personality traits:

  • Pleasure-Seeking: Pursuing the substance or performing the act to obtain pleasure or reward
  • Withdrawal: Experiencing a surge of mental, emotional and physical unrest upon quitting the substance or the act
  • Compulsive Behavior: Using the substance or performing the act persistently without it leading to pleasure or reward, even when it costs their health, finances, work, or relationships

The Next Steps

Tackling impulsiveness and other symptoms of dyscontrol syndrome is key for substance use disorder treatment. Due to this study, researchers now believe that the same approach is also relevant for people with substance use disorder.

Researchers also emphasized that people struggling with social media addiction, who also exhibit narcissistic behavior, could benefit from treatment focused on the person's drive for positive social reward.

Abstinence is the goal in addiction treatment, but it may not be possible to completely abstain from social media usage. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of social media addiction is that our lives are endlessly surrounded by technology.

However, understanding how the abuse affects others as well as being able to control impulse behavior should be considered in the development of treatment programs for both compulsive social media use and problem drinking.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can explore our directory of rehabilitation facilities or call 800-772-8219 to speak with a treatment specialist.


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