The potential harms of excessive Internet use are serious enough for the medical community to debate whether it should be included as a disorder associated with addiction. One question is Where do you draw the line between excessive use—considered nonpathologic behavior—and addiction?

Researchers surveyed 374 university students about social network habits, testing for obsession, lack of personal control, and excessive use. The questionnaire included questions such as “I feel a great need to stay connected to social media” and “I feel anxious when I cannot connect to social media.” The researchers also used a questionnaire about suicidal ideation.

More than half the students reported that WhatsApp is their most important social network, followed by Facebook. The respondents used social media for an average of nearly 7 hours a day. They used social media mainly for contact with friends, entertainment, conversing with a partner, maintaining contact with colleagues for academic matters, and contact with family.

The researchers divided the participants into 3 groups, based on their risk of addiction. The majority were considered “moderate risk.” Approximately 10% were considered “high risk.” The high-risk students spent roughly 11 hours a day on social media compared with the low-risk students who spent about 4 hours. Greater risk also implied more depressive symptoms, more mobile use, and less positive suicidal ideation.

Almost 4 in 10 students had thoughts and wishes about their death at least once in the 2 weeks before the survey. Interestingly, however, the researchers found no relationship between suicidal ideation and addictive behavior. But adding depression did make a difference. Unlike excessive use, addictive behavior was significantly related to depression and suicidal ideation.

The researchers cite other studies that have found addiction to social networks predicts depression and can worsen symptoms. But they also say their findings confirm other research that suggests social media communication can be protective for people who have suicidal thoughts. What looks like addiction may be “an act of escape” from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Social media, they say, can be a “refuge.”

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