Researchers in Norway have published a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction, the first of its kind worldwide. They wrote about their work in the April 2012 issue of the journal Psychological Reports. They hope that researchers will find the new psychometric tool useful in investigating problem behavior linked to Facebook use.

However, an accompanying article suggests a more useful approach might be to measure addiction to social networking as an activity, rather than addiction to a specific product like Facebook. This is particularly relevant given that Facebook is now more than a social networking site (for instance users can watch videos and films, gamble and play games on the site) and social networking is not confined to Facebook.

The new measure is called the BFAS, short for the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale and is the work of Dr. Cecilie Andraessen at the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and colleagues. Andreassen currently leads the Facebook Addiction research project at UiB.

In their paper, Andraessen and colleagues describe how they started out with a pool of 18 items made up of three items for each of the six core elements of addiction: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse.

In January 2011, they invited 423 students (227 women and 196 men) to complete the draft BFAS questionnaire, along with a battery of other standardized self-report scales of personality, sleep, sociability, attitudes towards Facebook, and addictive tendencies.

Eventually, Andraessen and colleagues finalized the BFAS to six basic criteria, with participants asked to give one the following 5 responses to each one: (1) Very rarely, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Very often:

  1. You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planning how to use it.
  2. You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.
  3. You use Facebook in order to forget about personal problems.
  4. You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success.
  5. You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook.
  6. You use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.

Andreassen and colleagues suggest that scoring “often” or “very often” on at least four of the six items may suggest the respondent is addicted to Facebook.

They found that various personality traits related to the scale: for instance neuroticism and extraversion related positively, and conscientiousness related negatively.

They also found that high scores on the BFAS were linked to going to bed very late and getting up very late.

Andreassen has clear views on why people become addicted to Facebook. She told the press that she and her team notes it tends to happen more among younger than older users.

“We have also found that people who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more than those with lower scores on those traits, probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face,” says Andreassen.

The Norwegian team also finds that people who are more organized and ambitious tend not to become addicted to Facebook, and are more likely to use social media as an integral part of work and networking activity.

Andreassen says they find women tend to be more at risk of developing Facebook addiction, something they attribute to the social nature of Facebook.

Dr Mark D Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies in the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, writes a response to the study in the same issue of the journal.

In a personal blog about his response, he says that while he had no problem with the study by Andraessen and colleagues, he wished to comment more widely on doing research into Facebook addiction.

Griffiths says the BFAS most likely arose from a need to help researchers who require a psychometrically validated tool for investigating problematic use of Facebook, and as such it will clearly be useful.

But in his view, the field of Facebook addiction now has to move on and keep pace, and in doing so needs to address several points.

For instance, there is a need to address social networking as an activity, separate from Facebook, which is a commercial product of which social networking is just one aspect. People now go on Facebook to gamble, play games like Farmville, watch films and videos, swap photos, message friends, and update their profile.

Another point Griffiths makes is that we need to clarify what it is that people on social networks are really addicted to, and what, for example, a Facebook addiction tool is really measuring. The BFAS may only be applicable to Facebook, and not for example to other social networking sites such as Bebo, which is popular with young teenagers.

With the fast pace at which electronic media and sites that started primarily for social networking, are changing and offering an increasingly varied number of activities, Griffiths suggests the term “Facebook addiction“, like “Internet addiction” may already be obsolete.

There is a big difference between addictions on the Internet, and addiction to the Internet, he adds, and the same argument now holds true for Facebook, as it does for mobile phones.

Thus, what is needed now is a psychometrically validated tool that specifically assesses “social networking addiction”, rather than Facebook use, says Griffiths. As an example, he points out that the BFAS does not distinguish between addiction to Farmville, and constantly messaging Facebook friends.