Communication via social media has become a societal norm over the last decade or so. For most people, social media is a quick and convenient way to stay connected to family and friends. However, for a growing percentage of users, social networking becomes an addiction with serious side effects.
Psychologists estimate that between 5-10% of Americans meet the criteria of a social networking addiction. A relatively new topic in behavioral psychology, an addiction to social media is characterized by compulsive behavior, thoughts, or actions that impact daily life.
Learn about this growing problem and what to do if you think you are addicted.
What is Social Media Addiction?
Social media is a popular tool for people of all ages but is especially prevalent among children and teenagers[i].This increase in the use of social networking sites has lead to an rise in social media addiction.
Social media dependence is viewed as a behavioral addiction because it impacts the brain in damaging ways and creates unwanted behaviors. The widespread use of social networking (through smartphones and other mobile devices) indicates that the number of individuals with an addiction to social media may be much greater then originally estimated.
Obviously, Not everyone who uses social media will form an addiction. However, growing access is increasing the likelihood of this issue developing. Understanding the signs can help to catch this concerning problem early. Social media often creates a negative impact on other areas of a users life when they are suffering from and addiction. Trouble at school or work is often the first sign of an issue. Social media use that increases over time and progressively consumes the users attention should raise flags.
Someone who is addicted to social media may lose interest in other areas. Hobbies and activities they once enjoy may be replaced with the use of social networking sites, and even basic human needs may suffer. Individuals with this type of addiction may avoid sleeping, eating, or bathing, and may get angry when use is limited or unavailable.
How Social Media Affects the Brain.
Social media affects the brain in interesting and unique ways, both physically and socially. Evidence from Bhanji and Delgado shows that the neurotransmitters that respond to primary and secondary rewards are also implicated in the processing of social rewards online. Acts such as Likes, retweets, and other popular social media features shape reinforcement learning despite their ubiquitous nature.
When receiving positive reinforcement (likes) on social media, the brain responds the same way as it would after achieving any pleasure-based reward. Thus, the brain fires off dopamine receptors that essentially excite the brain and announce the reward’s arrival. Think of it like entering a party and having everyone in the room turn to greet you with enthusiasm. Aside from creating rewards related to viewing or posting to social media, there is also an impact on decision-making and emotional function processes. Inclusion or exclusion from online events or groups directly affects the brain and the way it functions. With endless opportunities for immediate rewards that require little to no effort, social media rewires the brain to crave these instant positive incentives.
While research in these areas is still in the early stages, there is no denying the connection between the brain and the screen.
What Causes Social Media Addiction?
An addiction to social media can develop in a person of any age, race, or gender. Due to its effect on the brain and its fundamental design, social media can be highly addictive. One Harvard University study found that 30–40% of our speech output is devoted to informing others of our own subjective experiences[ii]. This elevated desire to share our thoughts and feelings with other people makes us especially susceptible to social media addiction.
The brain’s reward center tends to be most active when talking about ourselves[i]. Since social media is centered on self-disclosure, users receive positive reinforcement when sharing to various social media platforms. While Self-disclosure can be vital to facilitating improved psychological wellbeing in individuals with mental disorders, social media may have the opposite effect and lead to deeper issues[ii]. Conditions such as social anxiety, depression, and mood modification have been noted, as have increased reporting of feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Social media usage becomes a concern when an individual uses them as an escape from real-life. Often treated as a coping mechanism, research has shown an indisputable link between social media and mental health issues, especially in teens and young adults.
The root cause of social media addiction is unknown; however, instant gratification, coupled with extended exposure, may play a significant role in forming this growing problem.
The Consequences of Social Media Addiction
An addiction to social networking sites may not cause the same physical harm as the use of tobacco, alcohol, or heroin. However, the effects can still be quite profound.
Research shows that more than 3.6 billion people were using social media worldwide in 2020[iv]. Among these users, teens seem to be the most prevalent, with more than 80% active online[v].
One of the main problems with the excessive use of social networking sites is the intrinsic value placed on superficial ideals. Physical appearance takes priority. How you look, who you know, where you go, and what you do are awarded a merit in the currency of likes and shares. This material-focused environment places pressure on teens and can lead to increased mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
It is estimated that almost 30% of youth who spend more than 3 hours per day on social media exhibit signs of poor mental health, including low self-esteem[vi]. These issues may be related to the comparisons we form while browsing social networking sites or the pressure involved in constantly sharing information in new and innovative ways. Social media leads to comparisons between the realistic offline self with online images that are perfectly filtered, heavily edited, and often flawless. These comparisons can be detrimental to ever-increasing mental health concerns.
Excessive use of social media will affect your overall happiness and wellbeing. It may also lead to an increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and body image issues. The constant comparisons typical of social networking sites create unrealistic ideals that are impossible to achieve. Thus, over time they send the user a message that claims they are unworthy of attention if they cannot maintain elevated statistics.
Treatment of Social Media Addiction
While most users can enjoy social media without adverse effects, the pressure associated with constant evaluation can become too much to handle for a select percentage. Those suffering from a social media addiction are often consumed by the need to engage and rely heavily on social networks to provide validation. They may experience withdrawal symptoms if they can’t access social media or feel extreme anxiety.
Treatment of cyber addiction can be challenging due to the increasing need for connection at work, school, and socialization. Treatment often involves setting up guidelines and limiting the amount of time spent using social media.
Suggested Guidelines for Treating Social Media Addiction:
- Outline when it is and is not okay to use social media.
- Create a designated area for social media use to monitor interactions.
- Encourage open and honest discussions about the content seen on social media.
- Review all content before it is viewed or posted to social media.
- Link an adult account to a child’s to carefully monitor their online behavior.
- Block unsafe sites and report inappropriate behaviors online.
Disallowing the use of social media is relatively impossible in the world today. Forcing digital detox can have consequences that are far worse than the use of such tools. Work, school, and social relations require that we are at least able to connect as needed. Entirely removing this ability may affect a person’s grades, performance, friendships, or mental health.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to social media, find ways to limit the contact and seek a counselor’s advice. The number one way to combat negative behavior is to allow for open conversations that promote positive life choices and encourage discussion. Talk with friends and family about social media use. Explain the benefits and outline the risks. Encourage young children and teens to talk about what they see online and help them find alternative ways to connect with the world.
While the idea of a social media addiction may seem scary, social media itself is not all bad. It can aid in fostering relationships that build awareness and increase self-esteem. As with anything, be sure that what you do online does not become the focus of your life off-screen.
[i] Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2020, August 14). Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/
[ii] Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(21), 8038–8043.
[iii] Medical Press. (2019). Excessive Social Media Use Is Comparable to Drug Addiction. Retrieved on 27th August 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-01-excessive-social-media-drug-addiction.html
[iv] Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/#:~:text=Social%20media%20usage%20is%20one,almost%204.41%20billion%20in%202025.
[v] PEW RESEARCH CENTER. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/#who-uses-social-media
[vii] Gonzales, A. L., & Hancock, J. T. (2011). Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: Effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 79–83.
[viii] Rosenberg, M. (1965). Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSE). Acceptance and commitment therapy. Measures Package, 61, 61-62.