Chris Chen examines Instagram habitual use and problematic behaviors

The assistant professor of communication design coauthored an Aug. 13 article in Social Media + Society that investigates the habitual and problematic use of the popular photo-sharing platform.

Chris (Cheng) Chen, an assistant professor in the Communication Design Department, coauthored a new journal article, titled “Differentiating Problematic from Habitual Instagram Use: A Uses and Grats 2.0 Perspective,” in Social Media + Society. The article was published on Aug. 13 by the peer-reviewed journal that focuses on social media use and its impact on societies past, present and future.

Chris Chen

Chen collaborated with Olivia Cohen of Temple University and S. Shyam Sundar of Penn State University to investigate the habitual and problematic use of Instagram, the popular social media platform with more than 1 billion active monthly users. The coauthors conducted a survey study with 539 college students recruited from five undergraduate classes at a large Northeast university in the United States. Of those participants, 482 indicated they were Instagram users, and they checked Instagram 11–20 times on an average day.

“I am interested in this topic because there are more and more young people scrolling their phones and checking Instagram every day, and some end up having problematic use symptoms that severely influence their study, work and life,” Chen said. “I am curious about how to differentiate them, i.e., habitual versus problematic Instagram use. We addressed this question by looking at Instagram feature use and gratifications users obtained from the technology.”

According to Chen, the most difficult part of the research process was that the coauthors did not follow the dominant approach in media addiction research by viewing problematic Instagram use as a mental disorder. Instead, Chen and her collaborators approached the research from a technological addiction perspective, examining what about the technology itself may lead to the formation of habitual and problematic Instagram use. “This perspective is new and fruitful for differentiating the two behaviors,” she said.

The article’s findings indicate that habitual Instagram use is positively related to the use of lurking- and connection-related features and the gratification of play. By contrast, problematic Instagram use is positively correlated with the use of broadcasting-related features and the gratification of novelty.

“Most of our hypotheses were supported by the data. So, the results did not differ too much from our initial thoughts,” Chen said. “However, we had the goal of differentiating problematic from habitual Instagram use at the beginning, but we also observed some similarity between these two behaviors. For example, both problematic users and habitual users of Instagram enjoyed exploring Instagram as a digital space, although the tendency was stronger for habitual users.”

Chen recently completed her doctorate at Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, and she joined Elon as a full-time faculty member in August. Her research interests include the social and psychological effects of new media technologies, with a focus on mobile media addiction and algorithmic bias.