It is difficult to imagine a life without screens; the digital world provides a window to peek into lives and events far from physical reach. In return, it demands our ever-shrinking attention spans. And yet, we continue to spend more and more time inside our smartphones, often accessing digital social networks — compulsively, and with long-term impacts on physical and mental health, that researchers have examined and documented extensively in the past. Now, a new study suggests that there might be an additional layer to this — linking social media addiction and impaired sexual function.
The study, authored by Rui Miguel Costa and colleagues, was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Costa explained the rationale behind the study to Psypost: there was virtually no “study examining if social media addiction is related to sexual difficulties.” This, despite existing awareness about how social media use can be addictive, leading to worsening moods which can in-turn lead to sexual difficulties. For their research, Costa and colleagues analyzed responses from sexually active male and female participants on two separate assessments — on sexual function and problematic use of social networking sites, and on sexual function and problematic use of smartphones.
The study asked questions based on respondents’ online time, daily chores, and productivity, in relation to their use of smartphones and social networking sites. Researchers found that problematic use of social networking sites was associated with a range of sexual issues in men and women. Men with addiction-level usage of social media also reported having lower erectile function and desire, overall sexual dissatisfaction, and more difficulties having orgasms. Women, on the other hand, were found to have lower arousal, difficulties in lubricating and having orgasms, sexual dissatisfaction, coital pain, and greater sexual distress.
The researchers found an association of sexual distress and lower sexual functioning with problematic smartphone use as well. However, once the researchers controlled their data for problematic use of social networking sites and lower sexual functioning, the relationship between sexual dysfunction and smartphone use almost disappeared. This indicates that smartphone use on its own may not lead to addiction issues and associated sexual distress. “Thus, it seems to be the addictive-like use of [social networking sites] that is mostly associated with diminished sexual function, not the addictive-like use of smartphones per se,” Costa said.
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Costa suggested reducing the use of social media, especially “if it often interferes with daily activities, work, sleep, personal relationships, or face-to-face social interactions, more generally,” and also “if social media often elicit negative emotions, like anger, envy, disappointment, loneliness, or a sense of estrangement.”
Despite establishing connections between impaired sexual function and social media usage, the researchers note that the connection is only correlational: further research would need to determine whether sexual dysfunction is caused by social media, or whether preexisting impaired sexual function leads to social media addiction. “[M]ore experimental studies are needed to test if sexual function is improved by spending less time on social media or by avoiding negative emotions that social media can trigger. We also need more knowledge about the processes that explain why social media addiction is associated with sexual difficulties,” Costa added.
The onset of the pandemic pushed many into an age of screen dependency. Even earlier, smartphone use and screen time were significant issues affecting people’s health, especially among adolescents. An established link between social network addiction and sexual dysfunction, in such a context, may play a sizeable role in encouraging people to seek help for problematic social-media usage, which in the long run may help us in de-addicting the populace.