High Prevalence of Social Media Addiction in University Students in Singapore, and Comorbidity With Other Mental Health Issues

High prevalence of social media addiction in university students in Singapore, and comorbidity with other mental health issues

29.5% of university students in Singapore are addicted to the use of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In a study of 1,110 students by research psychologists from the National University of Singapore (NUS), a significant number of the students reported that they experience unpleasant emotions when prohibited from access to social media, and have failed in their attempts to cut down on social media usage (Tang & Koh, 2017).

In the study published in Asian Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers measured students’ self-reports of their urges to use social networking sites, as well as their experiences when not connected to social media. In addition, the researchers also investigated the prevalence of affective disorders (depression, mania and anxiety), and two behavioural addictions (shopping addiction and food addiction).

Much of previous research has focused on the relation between social media usage and affective disorders. Research findings have demonstrated mixed evidence of the association between social media use and affective disorders (e.g. Primack, 2009; Sidani et. al., 2016). However, there is strong research evidence showing an association between social media addiction and comorbid mental health issues (Andreassen, et al., 2016).

The researchers also pointed out that “…social networking sites have become more diversified, and some sites can be used for gaming, gambling as well as online shopping...”, justifying the need to develop an understanding between social media addiction and other behavioural addictions.

The results of the study found that 21% of the participants met the criteria for both social media addiction and depression, 27.7% for social media addiction and anxiety, and 26.1% for social media addiction and mania. On the other hand, the comorbidity rates were 3% for social media addiction and food addiction, and 5% for social media addiction and shopping addiction. 1% of the sample studied met the criteria for all three behavioural addictions.

In contrast to the total sample of university students in the Singapore studied, those who met the criteria for social media addiction were significantly more likely to report having affective disorder and/or other behavioural addiction. 71.2% of the 327 students who met the criteria for social media addiction reported depression, while 93.9% reported anxiety, and 88.5% reported meeting the criteria for mania.

10.1% and 16.8% of the subpopulation of students in Singapore with social media addiction also reported food and shopping addiction respectively. 3.4% of the subpopulation reported having all three behavioural addictions.

The study by Tang and Koh (2017) revealed high comorbidity rates between social media addiction, and both affective disorders and other behavioural disorders. This prevalence rate of 29.5% university students in Singapore who met the criteria for social media addiction is consistent with that in other Asian countries (24-35%).

Decades of research prior to the advent of social media have shown that the support of a strong network is a valuable resource in managing stressful situations. The advantages of a strong support network include providing a sense of security, an avenue to express concerns, and feelings of belonging to a group. However, the positive benefits of a strong network may not apply in a similar manner in social media. We may not be feel connected despite having many followers or friends on social media. For example, you may be constantly updated on the latest destinations your friends have been to, but you may not be connected on an emotional and personal level (I mean how many of you actually are laughing when you type “LOL”?). The tendency to share the positive aspects of one’s life and hide the less joyful moments also paves the way for unhealthy social comparison and diminishing self-esteem.

As highlighted by the authors of the study, it is critical to further understand the connection between social media addiction and other behavioural addiction, so as to better inform psychologists in the clinical setting. One possible hypothesis for the association between social media addiction, and both food and shopping addiction, is social comparison itself. After all, sharing pictures of food and new purchases is one way to garner more likes/shares.

Individuals who are addicted to social media may also be more susceptible to advertising messages that they encounter online, with previous research showing that individuals experiencing low mood are more likely believe the advertisements that they see (LaTour & LaTour, 2009.


Andreassen, C. S., Billieux, J., Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D. J., Demetrovics, Z., Mazzoni, E., & Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between addictive use of social media and video games and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 30(2), 252.

LaTour, K. A., & LaTour, M. S. (2009). Positive mood and susceptibility to false advertising. Journal of Advertising, 38(3), 127-142.

Primack, B. A., Swanier, B., Georgiopoulos, A. M., Land, S. R., & Fine, M. J. (2009). Association between media use in adolescence and depression in young adulthood: a longitudinal study. Archives of general psychiatry, 66(2), 181-188.

Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., ... & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and anxiety, 33(4), 323-331.

Tang, C. S. K., & Koh, Y. Y. W. (2017). Online social networking addiction among college students in Singapore: Comorbidity with behavioral addiction and affective disorder. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 25, 175-178.

Categories: Singapore
Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil

About the Author

Haikal received his Master degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS), under a full scholarship awarded by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Before entering private practice, he has gained much experience in both hospital and social services settings.

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