Social media scrolling and gaming can be addictive, but a new study out of the University of Georgia found these two behaviors are particularly habit forming for kids who have trouble regulating their emotions.
The study found that nearly 80% of adolescents from 12 to 17 reported checking social media every day, with TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat being the most popular platforms among adolescents. And 100% of the students surveyed said they had a social media account.
While less common than social media use, internet gaming is on the rise with 86% of the sample reporting experience with gaming at some point in their lives, without much gender variation.
Although many adolescents can use social media or game without issues, it can become problematic and compulsive for some. For those affected, the addictive behavior tends to split down traditional gender lines, with girls more likely to be addicted to social media, and boys to gaming.
“Across the globe, a small subset of people who game and use social media can lose control over that behavior, and they can start to see a lot of negative consequences,” said Amanda Giordano, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the UGA Mary Frances Early College of Education. “When these behaviors become their primary means of regulating their emotions, that’s where we can start to see this dependence develop over time.”
Students with emotion regulation problems at higher risk of addiction
Emotion regulation is the ability to control your emotions, including when you have them and how you express them.
“Emotion regulation skills typically develop in the first couple years of life as an infant learns to co-regulate their emotions with an attuned caregiver,” said Giordano. “But for whatever reason, that might not be the experience of all kids. And so, they end up going through life not knowing how to effectively change how they feel. When they come across social media or gaming, they realize it is a quick and easy way to change their emotional state and may become reliant on them over time.”
While adolescents who have problems with emotion regulation may be at higher risk for behavioral addictions, they can be taught to regulate their feelings, Giordano said.
Before activities such as gaming or social media turn into behavioral addictions, caregivers and mental health professionals can employ several preventive efforts in the home or at school.
These measures may include emotion regulation enhancement experiences for children and psychoeducation and training for caregivers focused on emotional support. For example, children can be taught to identify and label their emotional experiences. They can learn emotional regulation strategies like how to self-soothe, how to tolerate distress, and ways they can alter their circumstances, what they attend to in their circumstances, or the meaning they make from their circumstances to influence their emotional responses.
“We can train families and parents to emphasize emotion regulation enhancement strategies in the home to help kids find ways to self-soothe that align with their goals and values,” Giordano said. “Adolescents can learn strategies for alleviating negative emotions and tolerating distress, so they do not rely solely on one rewarding behavior that can lead to negative consequences.”
Caregivers can learn how to equip children with emotion regulation and coping skills by modeling these behaviors and helping youth practice these strategies.
Gaming disorder recognized by WHO
Survey respondents represented a diverse group of 350 adolescents in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17.
Among adolescents who said they game, 43.9% were female and 55.5% were male, indicating a rise in female gamers. Additionally, among those who gamed, 38.2% reported gaming about every day. Of those participants, 47.8% reported gaming for six or more hours per day.
In late 2017, the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to the International Classification of Diseases.
“When you’re gaming, it’s thrilling and there’s this rush of excitement,” said Giordano. “It’s also a way to enter into a trance-like state and forget the problems of the offline world. For some, it becomes the only way they know how to manage their feelings.”
Regularly assessing social media and internet gaming use among adolescents can also provide important information for counselors and caretakers. Higher scores on social media addiction and internet gaming disorder assessments may indicate emotion regulation difficulties in some youth.