Getting hooked on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat could be as bad for young people’s well-being as taking drugs, warns new research.

Excessive social media use is comparable to substance abuse – triggering similar risky decision-making, according to the study.

And it needs to be “considered an addiction” with the potential to cause long-term harm to emotions, behaviour and relationships, say scientists.

Lead author Professor Dar Meshi, of Michigan State University in the US, said: “Around one-third of humans on the planet are using social media – and some of these people are displaying maladaptive, excessive use of these sites.

“Our findings will hopefully motivate the field to take social media overuse seriously.”

Millennials – those born between 1984 and 2005– have embraced the digital age as a lifeline to the outside world.

They may not get liver damage or lung cancer from social media – but it can be damaging nonetheless.

Some compulsively check social network profiles and updates – and leave themselves open to online exploitation.

Now the first study of its kind has identified a link between bad decision-making and social media – a problem usually linked to drug addicts and pathological gamblers.

Dr Meshi said: “Decision-making is oftentimes compromised in individuals with substance use disorders. They sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcomes.

“But no one previously looked at this behaviour as it relates to excessive social media users. So we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers. While we didn’t test for the cause of poor decision-making, we tested for its correlation with problematic social media use.”

His team had 71 participants take a survey that measured their psychological dependence on Facebook – similar to addiction. Questions asked about users’ preoccupation with the platform, their feelings when unable to use it, attempts to quit and the impact it has had on their job or studies.

The researchers then had the volunteers do the Iowa Gambling Task – a common exercise used by psychologists to measure decision-making.

To successfully complete the task users identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to choose the best possible one. By the end the worse and better people did by choosing from bad decks, the more and less their social media use was, respectively.

The findings published in the Journal of Behaviour Addictions mirrors results found in drug addicts.

People who abuse opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamines have similar outcomes on the Iowa Gambling Task – showing the same deficiency in decision-making.

Addiction refers to any behaviour that is pleasurable and is the only reason to get through the day. Everything else pales into insignificance.

In the case of social media it means spending increasing amounts of time online so it becomes the main activity of the day – above all others.

Dr Meshi said: “With so many people around the world using social media, it’s critical for us to understand its use. I believe social media has tremendous benefits for individuals, but there’s also a dark side when people can’t pull themselves away. 

“We need to better understand this drive so we can determine if excessive social media use should be considered an addiction.”

Social media has become more desirable than, for example,  time in a pub for millennials, research claims.