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The idea of social media ‘addiction’ is bogus — and using it is linked to some key benefits

The idea of social media ‘addiction’ is bogus — and using it is linked to some key benefits

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Evgeny Belikov/Strelka Institute/Flickr
  • Frequent social media use and screen time have been portrayed as universally bad for our health.
  • However, a lot of research on this phenomenon has been characterized by poorly done studies and bad science.
  • The vast majority of evidence suggests that our smartphones are not uniformly harmful, and in some cases, they may be a force for good.

True story: I once walked headfirst into a pole on my way home from work.

I can’t blame the darkness (the sun had only just begun to set), and I can’t blame my vision (I’d recently gotten new glasses). But I can blame my iPhone, whose vibration had lured me into staring at its crisp bright screen. The text I was responding to was not worth the heart-shaped bruise that I shamefully covered in makeup the next day.

Until my ridiculous injury, I had laughed at stories about the dangers of “walking while texting.” I’d eye-rolled at reports of painful “iPhone neck” from leaning over tiny screens. And I’d never taken the idea of social media addiction seriously.

But that evening, I started to wonder if maybe our generation was screwed – and maybe our smartphones were to blame.

So I did some digging: I pored over scientific studies and talked to researchers who specialize in psychology, sociology, addiction, and statistics. A few experts were emphatic that social media addiction is real and should be added to the DSM IV, long considered the diagnostic bible for psychologists. Others hedged their bets and said more studies were needed.

But the conclusion I gathered was the opposite of what I’ve been hearing in the news. Social media and smartphones are not ruining our brains, nor will either become the downfall of a generation.

The vast majority of the large and well-designed statistical studies on smartphones and the brain actually suggest these technologies are having little to no effect on our health and well-being. And in some cases, the availability of social media and phones may be a power for good.

‘The lowest quality of evidence you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room’

texting working late

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Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock.com

Most of the headlines about social media – the ones that warn us about smartphones destroying a generation, ruining our posture and mood, and eroding our brains – are simply “a projection of our own fears,” Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Business Insider.

That’s because most existing studies on social media’s effects suffer from the same problems that have plagued the social science field for decades.

For one thing, many of the studies are too small to carry a lot of statistical power, Przybylski said. Researchers also often go into a study with an agenda or hypothesis that they hope their study will support.

Take, for example, the claim that because teen depression and iPhone ownership have been rising at the same time, they must be connected. This is a classic example of correlation, not causation: our phones are not necessarily to blame for cases of depression.

Przybylski has attempted to replicate some of the studies that suggested there’s a strong tie between social media use and depression. When he used larger sets of people in a more well-controlled environment, he failed to find the same results. Instead, he’s found either no link or a very, very small one.

“People are making expansive claims about the link between well-being and tech use, but if this was displayed on a Venn diagram, the circles would overlap one quarter of one percent,” Przybylski said. “It is literally the lowest quality of evidence that you could give that people wouldn’t laugh you out of the room.”

Last year, Przybylski co-authored a study published in the journal Psychological Science in which he examined the effect of screen-time on a sample of more than 120,000 British adolescents. The researchers asked teens how much time they spent streaming, gaming, and using their smartphones and computers. After running the data through a series of statistical analyses, it became clear to Przybylski that screen-time isn’t harmful for the vast majority of teens. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful – especially when teens are using it for two to four hours per day.

“Overall, the evidence indicated that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world,” Przybylski wrote in the paper.

Even when it came to those positive results, however, Przybylski said the significance of the effects they observed was tiny.

“If you’re a parent and you have limited resources, the question becomes: which hill are you going to die on? Where do you want to put your limited resources? Do you want to put it into making sure your kid has breakfast or gets a full night’s sleep? Because for those activities the effects are three times larger than they would be for screen-time,” Przybylski said.

Seeing problems everywhere

walking and texting

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Flickr / Robert Couse-Baker

Many parents fear that using social media is universally bad for teens. They get distracted by text messages during class; they miss out on family time because they’re texting at the dinner table; they scroll through Instagram instead of going to sleep.

Once you see a few examples of phone-obsessed behavior – a whole family staring silently at their phones while eating a restaurant, say – you tend to notice it more wherever you go.

This may be partially a result of the phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Essentially, you see one event that supports an idea you already have, then because you are hyper-aware of these types of activities, you find more examples that appear to confirm that idea.

It’s a bit like when you begin shopping for a certain kind of car – a Honda Civic, let’s say – then suddenly notice that everyone appears to be driving a Honda Civic. In reality, that model hasn’t gotten more popular overnight; you’re simply primed to notice them.

“A lot of the research is bound up in these problems,” Przybylski said. “Our concerns or panic about a new thing” – in this case, social media – “guide how we do the research and interpret the results.”

Distorted, negative viewpoints have likely influenced the research on a host of new inventions and activities throughout history.

Unfortunately, paying attention exclusively to social harms makes us blind to the ways a new technology may be help us. In the case of social media, such biases can take attention away from other more serious problems.

“It’s important to think about all the things we’re not talking about here. We don’t talk about things like privacy, advertisements, who owns your data, and all this stuff that’s actually important. So actually it serves the interest of larger companies to be debating things like screen time and usage. When you bring it all together you have a big dog and pony show,” Przybylski said.

When social media may help, not harm

teens

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REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Candice L. Odgers

, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California Irvine, specializes in studying new technologies and adolescent development. She told Business Insider that social media may be having some positive effects on teens and young adults, but many people are not paying attention to that research.

“The digital world hasn’t created a new species of children. Many of the things that attract them to things about social media are the same things that attract them to other activities,” Odgers said. “There are a lot of good things that are happening with social media use today and there’s been a really negative narrative about it.”

A large review of 36 studies published in the journal Adolescent Research Review concluded that instead of feeling hampered by their screens, teens are chiefly using digital communication to deepen and strengthen existing in-person relationships. The authors concluded that young adults find it easier to display affection, share intimacy, and even organize events and meet-ups online.

Similarly, the authors of a 2017 review of literature on social media and screen time published by UNICEF concluded that “digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships” and that most young people are using it to “enhance their existing relationships and stay in touch with friends.”

Kids who struggle to make friends in person may even use digital tools to “compensate for this and build positive relationships,” they said. A small 2018 study of British teens in foster care supports that idea – it suggested that social media helped young people maintain healthy relationships with their birth parents, make new friends, and ease the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Other research, including a small 2017 study of Instagram users aged 18-55, suggests that teens also turn to platforms like Instagram as a means of exploring the world and dreaming up potential adventures – a category of people the researchers classified as “feature lovers.”

“Feature lovers want to see something that’s exotic or unique; they’re looking at Instagram and they’re thinking, ‘take me to China or Alaska or some place I can’t afford to go,’” T.J. Thomson, the lead author of the study, told Business Insider.

You’re probably not ‘addicted’ to Facebook or Instagram

Girl iPhone X

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Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

The researchers behind these studies emphasized that social media and smartphones are not so much an “addiction” as a novel, attention-grabbing platform for enhancing existing activities and relationships.

In other words, social media has similar impacts on the brain as lots of other types of activity – too much or too little can be linked with negative impacts, while moderate use can have positive results.

“Claims that the brain might be hijacked or re-wired by digital technology are not supported by neuroscience evidence and should be treated with skepticism,” the authors of the UNICEF review wrote.

Addiction is a complicated but serious problem that neuroscientists have yet to fully understand. It typically stems from a cache of interconnected factors that include our environment and our genes. As a result, classifying our nearly-universal reliance on digital tools as an “addiction” simply isn’t fair to the people whose lives have been torn apart by things like alcoholism or drug use.

A chief characterizing factor of addictive behavior is that use of a given substance interferes with daily activity so much that people can’t function normally. Studies suggest that social media, by contrast, is often used to enhance existing relationships, and does not decrease real-world interactions or cause uniform harm.

Research does indicate, however, that people who may already be predisposed to depression and anxiety could suffer more as a result of using these types of “compare-and-despair” platforms.

A series of studies published this month in the journal Information, Communication, and Society found that while people’s Facebook use had no impact on their social interactions later that day, scrolling through the platform did appear to be linked with lower feelings of well-being if the person had been alone earlier in the day.

“People who use social media alone likely aren’t getting their face-to-face social needs met,” Michael Kearney, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “So if they’re not having their social needs met in their life outside of social media, it makes sense that looking at social media might make them feel even lonelier.”

There are plenty of simple, healthy ways to address these risks without resorting to harsh measures like breaking up with your smartphone. I, for one, no longer text when I walk.

It’s a small change, but my forehead is grateful.

Scientists are beginning to learn how vaping impacts teens — and the results are troubling

Scientists are beginning to learn how vaping impacts teens — and the results are troubling

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Shutterstock

Vaping appears to be wildly popular among teens who use e-cigs illegally. And in an ironic twist, teens who try vaping are at a far higher risk of becoming smokers compared with teens who don’t.

A new study puts the figure into stark numerical terms: while as many as 2,070 adults used e-cigs to quit in 2015, another 168,000 young people who used the devices went on to become smokers of conventional cigarettes. The analysis, led by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University, was published this month in the journal PLOS One.

It comes alongside a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found that roughly four out of five adolescents are exposed to e-cig advertisements.

“Based on the existing scientific evidence … e-cigarette use currently represents more population-level harm than benefit,” the Dartmouth researchers wrote in their study.

As many as 168,000 new smokers

man vaping outdoors

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Shutterstock

For the new study, Dartmouth researchers used 2014 census data and surveys to build a mathematical model of the link between vaping and smoking. Their evidence suggests that during 2015, roughly 2,070 smokers successfully quit with the aid of e-cigs.

But within the same time frame, their model suggested that as many as 168,000 young people who’d never previously smoked cigarettes started smoking regularly after vaping for the first time.

That said, the study is a model – it’s not a controlled study that looks at actual habits, so the findings are somewhat limited. There’s also no way to know, for example, if the e-cig users in the study who went on to smoke conventional cigarettes might have become smokers anyway, although the researchers attempted to control for that in their model.

But the new analysis is far from the first study to show evidence that teens who vape are more likely to go on to smoke.

A spate of research dating back as far as 2015 has suggested that teens who vape are anywhere between two and seven times more likely to eventually smoke conventional cigarettes as teens who never try e-cigs.

Still, scientists aren’t clear why this is happening.

While some have argued that vaping could be linked with a so-called “gateway effect” whereby young people who vape become addicted to nicotine and are thus more likely to transition to traditional cigarettes, others have said this doesn’t make sense.

“I honestly can’t think of why this would be,” Ana Rule, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University and an author of another study on e-cigs and teens told Business Insider about the phenomenon. “It is my understanding that vaping is a much more pleasurable experience, is socially acceptable (as opposed to smoking) and delivers a good dose of nicotine.”

Either way, public health experts are worried about vaping’s growing popularity among young people.

Why vaping is so popular among teens

marijuana vaporizer vaping vape

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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

At high schools across the country, vaping has become a fad with its own verb.

This is not entirely surprising. Kids and teens are exposed to a plethora of advertising for e-cigs that mimics much of the cigarette advertising of the 1960s. A CDC report published Friday found that roughly four in five middle and high school students saw e-cig ads in 2016.

Although ostensibly healthier than deadly cigarettes, e-cigs still contain highly addictive nicotine. The devices also possess a handful of qualities that make them especially appealing to young people.

Unlike conventional cigarettes, which have a natural stop mechanism – they burn to the end – e-cigs can be re-filled and reused. Additionally, e-cigs are discrete and sometimes odorless (or have a non-offensive smell). Vaping isn’t universally banned in indoor and outdoor places. Many vape pens are sleek, small, colorful, and fairly affordable.

But the evidence is mounting that teens who vape are more likely to go on to smoke conventional cigarettes.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that teens who vaped had three times the risk of eventually smoking conventional cigarettes as teens who never tried e-cigs. A larger follow-up study done the following year appeared to confirm those findings, as did a 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health which looked at roughly 1,150 British adolescents aged 11 to 18.

For the 2018 paper, teens whose nicotine exposure began with e-cigs appeared to have as much as a 12 times greater chance of smoking cigarettes 4 months later than kids who didn’t vape, even after the researchers controlled for several big risk factors for smoking.

The first large and comprehensive review of all the published research on e-cigs added some additional weight to that conclusion, finding “substantial evidence” that young people who vape are more likely to smoke conventional cigarettes than those who don’t.

“Vaping among teens is my (and most public health professionals) biggest worry,” Rule told Business Insider last month.

A mysterious ‘supplement’ with a viral following has been linked to salmonella — and the outbreak is still spreading

A mysterious ‘supplement’ with a viral following has been linked to salmonella — and the outbreak is still spreading

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Sam Rega / Business Insider
  • Kratom is an opioid derived from a plant native to Southeast Asia. It can be consumed in pills, powder, or tea.
  • On Thursday, the CDC issued its third warning in a month that the drug, often called an “herbal supplement,” had been linked to salmonella, bringing the total number of sick people to 87.
  • It’s still unclear what is at the root of the outbreak, but data from CDC labs and field investigations points to kratom as the most likely source.

The Food and Drug Administration calls it a dangerous opioid, but kratom advocates call their pill of choice a life-saving supplement. Either way, it’s been linked with a growing salmonella outbreak.

Kratom is a psychoactive drug derived from the leaves of Mitragyna speciosa, a plant in the coffee family that is native to Southeast Asia. Research suggests the drug taps into some of the same brain receptors as opioids do, spurring the FDA to classify it as one this February.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control reported 47 additional cases of salmonella linked to kratom, bringing the total number of cases to 87. Salmonella is a bacterial infection from contaminated food or water that typically causes diarrhea and abdominal pain lasting up to a week.

As with any unregulated supplement, kratom may be dangerous and even deadly because there’s no way to verify what pills labeled “kratom” actually contain. Nevertheless, some marketers tout kratom as capable of delivering super-human strength and feelings of euphoria along with powerful pain relief and better focus. Untainted kratom is also sometimes hailed as a way to treat opioid addiction, which some addiction experts have said is not entirely unreasonable given its opioid-like qualities.

But unlike most opioids, which are either illegal or must be prescribed by a doctor, kratom is widely available online. It was even sold for a time out of an Arizona vending machine.

“At this time, CDC recommends that people not consume any brand of kratom in any form because it could be contaminated with Salmonella,” the agency wrote in a statement on Thursday, adding, “evidence indicates that kratom is the likely source of this … outbreak,” but “no common brands or suppliers of kratom products have been identified” yet.

As with most of its bacterial outbreak warnings, the agency interviewed people reporting symptoms of the infection to try to nail down the cause by asking sick people what foods and beverages they ate in the previous months and if they’d been traveling. Out of 55 people interviewed, 40 of them (73%) reported consuming kratom in pills, powder, or tea.

That means it’s still unclear precisely what caused the outbreak, though kratom seems to be the most likely culprit.

At this point in their investigation, health officials are collecting kratom products to test them for Salmonella bacteria. So far, officials in Oregon, North Dakota, and Utah have turned up samples of kratom powder used by sick people which tested positive for the bacteria. Both individuals said they bought the powder online.

Salmonella warnings like this from the CDC are not unusual.

The agency recently issued one for shredded raw coconut, for example. In that case, 10 (63%) of 16 people interviewed said they had eaten or “maybe eaten” coconut, with eight of those 10 saying they’d eaten a dessert drink made with frozen shredded coconut. And earlier this year, the CDC sent out a warning about raw sprouts. In interviews the CDC conducted when it was investigating that case, seven people reported eating at the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s, and all of them said they’d eaten sandwiches with raw sprouts.

Kratom is increasingly raising eyebrows

Kratom pills

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Kratom pills
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Psychonaught/Wikimedia Commons

Beyond this recent salmonella outbreak, kratom is becoming a topic of concern across multiple agencies, including the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, for other reasons.

Kratom has never gained FDA approval and is largely unregulated – meaning that, as with most supplements, it’s almost impossible to verify what’s actually in “kratom” pills, powders, or teas.

Last month, the FDA released a new warning officially classifying kratom as an opioid based on a series of case reports and computer models.

Those reports loosely connected kratom to 44 deaths, but in all but one case, the people who died were found to have been taking multiple drugs, including other opioids in many cases. That makes definitively labeling kratom as the cause of death impossible.

Still, concern about kratom is mounting, especially because some people appear to be using the supplement as a way to step down from opioid painkillers like heroin and morphine.

“Patients addicted to opioids are using kratom without dependable instructions for use and more importantly, without consultation with a licensed health care provider about the product’s dangers, potential side effects or interactions with other drugs,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a previous statement in November.

While this concern is legitimate, there is no way to know precisely how kratom does – or doesn’t – work without rigorous scientific testing, which has not yet been done.

Kratom is banned in Australia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and several US states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin). Across the US, several reports of deaths and addiction led the Drug Enforcement Administration to place kratom on its list of “drugs and chemicals of concern.” In 2016, the DEA proposed a ban on kratom but backtracked under pressure from some members of Congress and outcry from kratom advocates who said it could help treat opioid addiction.

“I want to be clear on one fact: there are currently no FDA-approved therapeutic uses of kratom,” Gottlieb said.

We took a scientific look at whether weed or alcohol is worse for you — and there appears to be a winner

We took a scientific look at whether weed or alcohol is worse for you — and there appears to be a winner

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Shutterstock

Which is worse for you: weed or whiskey?

It’s a tough call, but based on the science, there appears to be a clear answer.

Keep in mind that there are dozens of factors to account for, including how the substances affect your heart, brain, and behavior, and how likely you are to get hooked.

Time is important, too – while some effects are noticeable immediately, others only begin to crop up after months or years of use.

The comparison is slightly unfair for another reason: While scientists have been researching the effects of alcohol for decades, the science of cannabis is a lot murkier because of its mostly illegal status.


More than 30,700 Americans died from alcohol-induced causes in 2014. There have been zero documented deaths from marijuana use alone.

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Gerardo Garcia/Reuters

In 2014, 30,722 people died from alcohol-induced causes in the US – and that does not count drinking-related accidents or homicides. If those deaths were included, the number would be closer to 90,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, no deaths from marijuana overdoses have been reported, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A 16-year study of more than 65,000 Americans, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that healthy marijuana users were not more likely to die earlier than healthy people who did not use cannabis.


Marijuana appears to be significantly less addictive than alcohol.

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Shutterstock

Close to half of all adults have tried marijuana at least once, making it one of the most widely used illegal drugs – yet research suggests that a relatively small percentage of people become addicted.

For a 1994 survey, epidemiologists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse asked more than 8,000 people from ages 15 to 64 about their drug use. Of those who had tried marijuana at least once, roughly 9% eventually fit a diagnosis of addiction. For alcohol, the figure was about 15%. To put that in perspective, the addiction rate for cocaine was 17%, while heroin was 23% and nicotine was 32%.


Marijuana may be harder on your heart, while moderate drinking could be beneficial.

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Flickr/maxbraun

Unlike alcohol, which slows your heart rate, marijuana speeds it up, which could negatively affect the heart in the short term. Still, the largest-ever report on cannabis from the National Academies of Sciences, released in January, found insufficient evidence to support or refute the idea that cannabis may increase the overall risk of a heart attack.

On the other hand, low to moderate drinking – about one drink a day – has been linked with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke compared with abstention. James Nicholls, a director at Alcohol Research UK, told The Guardian that those findings should be taken with a grain of salt since “any protective effects tend to be canceled out by even occasional bouts of heavier drinking.”


Alcohol is strongly linked with several types of cancer; marijuana is not.

In November, a group of the nation’s top cancer doctors issued a statement asking people to drink less. They cited strong evidence that drinking alcohol – as little as a glass of wine or beer a day – increases the risk of developing both pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer.

The US Department of Health lists alcohol as a known human carcinogen. Research highlighted by the National Cancer Institute suggests that the more alcohol you drink – particularly the more you drink regularly – the higher your risk of developing cancer.

For marijuana, some research initially suggested a link between smoking and lung cancer, but that has been debunked. The January report found that cannabis was not connected to any increased risk of the lung cancers or head and neck cancers tied to smoking cigarettes.


Both drugs may be linked with risks while driving, but alcohol is worse.

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Unsplash / Michael Discenza

A research note published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF) found that, when adjusting for other factors, having a detectable amount of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) in your blood did not increase the risk of being involved in a car crash. Having a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.05%, on the other hand, increased that risk by 575%.

Still, combining the two appears to have the worst results.

“The risk from driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone,” the authors of a 2009 review wrote in the American Journal of Addiction.


Several studies link alcohol with violence, particularly at home. That has not been found for cannabis.

It’s impossible to say whether drinking alcohol or using marijuana causes violence, but several studies – including a recent analysis published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience – suggest a link between alcohol and violent behavior.

For a study published in January, researchers used fMRI scans to see how two alcoholic drinks impacts brain function in 50 healthy adult males. Compared with sober participants, the intoxicated volunteers were found to have reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked with moderating social behavior. That reduced functioning was also linked with aggressive behavior.

The finding aligns with some previous research on alcohol’s connections with violence. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes, and a study of college students found that the rates of mental and physical abuse were higher on days when couples drank.

On the other hand, no such relationship appears to exist for cannabis. A recent study looking at cannabis use and intimate partner violence in the first decade of marriage found that marijuana users were significantly less likely to commit violence against a partner than those who did not use the drug.


Both drugs negatively affect your memory — but in different ways. These effects are the most common in heavy, frequent, or binge users.

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Kristoffer Trolle/flickr

Both weed and alcohol temporarily impair memory, and alcohol can cause blackouts by rendering the brain incapable of forming memories. The most severe long-term effects are seen in heavy, chronic, or binge users who begin using in their teens.

Studies have found that these effects can persist for several weeks after stopping marijuana use. There may also be a link between daily weed use and poorer verbal memory in adults who start smoking at a young age.

Chronic drinkers display reductions in memory, attention, and planning, as well as impaired emotional processes and social cognition – and these can persist even after years of abstinence.


Both drugs are linked with an increased risk of psychiatric disease. For weed users, psychosis and schizophrenia are the main concern; with booze, it’s depression and anxiety.

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iStock

The largest review of marijuana studies found substantial evidence of an increased risk among frequent marijuana users of developing schizophrenia – something that studies have shown is a particular concern for people already at risk.

Weed can also trigger temporary feelings of paranoia and hostility, but it’s not yet clear whether those symptoms are linked with an increased risk of long-term psychosis.

On the other hand, self-harm and suicide are much more common among people who binge drink or drink frequently. But scientists have had a hard time deciphering whether excessive alcohol use causes depression and anxiety or whether people with depression and anxiety drink in an attempt to relieve those symptoms.


Alcohol appears to be linked more closely with weight gain, despite weed’s tendency to trigger the munchies.

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Melia Robinson/Business Insider

Weed gives you the munchies. It makes you hungry, reduces the natural signals of fullness, and may even temporarily make food taste better.

But despite eating over 600 extra calories when smoking, marijuana users generally don’t have higher body-mass indexes. In fact, studies suggest that regular smokers have a slightly reduced risk of obesity.

Alcohol, on the other hand, appears to be linked with weight gain. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that people who drank heavily had a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Plus, alcohol itself is caloric: A can of beer has roughly 150 calories, and a glass of wine has about 120.


All things considered, alcohol’s effects seem markedly more extreme — and riskier — than marijuana’s.

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iStock

When it comes to addiction profiles and risk of death or overdose combined with ties to cancer, car crashes, violence, and obesity, the research suggests that marijuana may be less of a health risk than alcohol.

Still, because of marijuana’s largely illegal status, long-term studies on all its health effects have been limited – meaning more research is needed.

The 5 most addictive substances on the planet, ranked

The 5 most addictive substances on the planet, ranked

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

As anyone who has drunk a cup of coffee knows, not all drugs are equally harmful. Caffeine, the most widely consumed psychoactive drug on earth, is not a danger to human health.

To give people an idea of the most dangerous substances, a team of psychiatrists, chemists, and pharmacologists at the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists systematically ranked them based on three factors: how much physical harm they cause, how addictive they are, and how much damage they do to society as a whole, judging by things like costs spent on healthcare. They published their findings in the medical journal The Lancet.

Here are the drugs that rank highest for dependency:


To assess the danger of each drug, the scientists looked at three types of effects.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

The following ranking focuses on dependency. The researchers further broke this category down into three factors that determine how addictive something is.

1. Pleasure, the euphoria a user feels on the drug; psychological dependence

2. The cravings a user experiences when the drug is withdrawn

3. Physical dependence, the headaches or other physical symptoms a user experiences when the drug is withdrawn


1. Heroin ranked the highest on the list in terms of dependency.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

The drug received a full three out of three in terms of pleasure, cravings, and physical dependence.


2. Cocaine received a three out of three in terms of pleasure.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

However, it was deemed to be slightly less psychologically addictive than heroin and about half as physically addictive.


3. In terms of psychological addictiveness, nicotine was ranked as almost as addictive as cocaine.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Nicotine received a 2.6 out of 3 compared to cocaine’s 2.8. But it was also deemed less pleasurable and far less physically addictive.


4. Barbiturates are sedative drugs that were once widely prescribed for anxiety.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

This category includes brand-name drugs like Amobarbital and Thiopental. Barbiturates got a two out of three for overall dependency – they were ranked as less pleasurable and less physiologically and physically addictive than nicotine, heroin, and cocaine.


5. Alcohol was deemed less psychologically addictive than tobacco.

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Alcohol and tobacco were ranked equally in terms of the “pleasure” aspect of their addictiveness, however, receiving a 2.3 out of 3. Alcohol and tobacco also had a similar physical dependence ranking overall.

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