Losing the tug of war : a grounded theory study of the development of social media addiction




Sun, Yalin

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In the passing decade, we have witnessed the exponential growth of social media use globally. Along with the increasing popularity of social media are the stories of addictive use, especially among younger generations. Previous studies have found that addictive social media use is associated with negative consequences such as reduced productivity and attention span, task avoidance and procrastination, information overload, and emotional collapse. However, a holistic conceptual understanding of the phenomenon is lacking to support future research investigations and to better inform the design of educational and intervention programs. Therefore, in this study, I explored people’s experiences of social media addiction and the process of how social media addiction develops, with a purpose to generate a substantive theory specific to this phenomenon. I followed the grounded theory approach from Strauss and Corbin (2015) and collected rich qualitative data through interviews, diaries, surveys, and social media activities from 20 college students. The final theoretical framework and its main categories were developed following an iterative process (e.g., constant comparison and theoretical sampling) and evaluated using multiple strategies. The generated theory outlines a dynamic process between two major categories involved in the development of social media addiction: gratification-seeking and self-control. I use the “tug of war” metaphor as the core category to portray this fluctuating and struggling process. I argue that the development of social media addiction involves a constant tussle between gratification-seeking and self-control and that addictive use happens when self-control loses the “tug of war” to reinforced gratification-seeking. Variations and sub-processes were identified and constructed under the categories of gratification-seeking and self-control. In addition to this core process, I also captured four groups of situational triggers (temporal, relational, emotional, and physical) prompting social media use and various contextual factors (in categories of individual differences, socio-cultural influences, and technological influences) contributing to excessive gratification-seeking on social media.
The results of this study can support future research with a conceptual framework specific to social media addiction. They also can help identify existing research gaps and potential future research directions, inform the design of educational and intervention programs for social media addiction, and offer guidance for social practices and policymaking.



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