Social media addiction is a growing concern. Knowing what warning signs are, and some ways to curb use may help it from spiraling out of control.
Social media is a fine way to keep in touch with friends and family. It’s a way to connect, to entertain oneself, to make a long wait at the mechanic’s or the doctor’s office a bit more bearable.
Right along with that comes concerns about social media addiction. Studies have been done on it. News outlets have reported on it. Talking heads have, well, talked about it. Lawmakers have even tried to rein in some of the more “addictive” features.
What if you’re hooked? Is that even possible, to be so beholden to these apps?
What Is Social Media Addiction?
Once upon a time, computers and phones were more luxuries than lifelines. These days, it seems like everybody has one (or more).
We tend to need them for work, for school, and to check in with loved ones. Perhaps more than ever these days, since COVID-19 started forcing people to turn their home base into classrooms and office space.
As for social media dependence, that’s considered a behavioral addiction. It’s not formally recognized by the most recent (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), which is basically the bible of psychiatric disorders. Neither are gaming or internet addiction, though the DSM-V has earmarked such activities as meriting observation. But behavioral addictions are those compulsive actions we repeat even though they offer no real benefit, and in many cases cause some degree of harm, typically by interfering with work, school, home, or social obligations.
A behavioral addiction affects the brain’s reward and motivation circuitry, triggering more feel-good dopamine. (It’s much like a chemical addiction, but instead of the substance in question lighting up the gray matter’s pleasure centers, the behavior itself creates those feelings.)
If logging into a favorite app causes dopamine levels to surge, the brain will link that with a reward. For some people their reaction to that is, “I’ll have another” — multiplied.
So, yes, social media can affect the brain. (As can video games or internet time.)
It’s only a temporary feeling, but some folks are more prone to repeat that behavior and reclaim that pleasure. When it’s a welcome distraction — maybe a small respite from some unpleasant task — that’s fine. When a person keeps returning to the app more frequently, and to the detriment of their work, their school assignments, their housework, or their personal relationships — then it’s time to sound the alarm bells. In a way, recognizing a social media addiction is easy. It’s best to consult with a mental health professional to be sure, but there are key differences between a habit and a hobby. Signs of social media addiction include:
Recognizing a Social Media Addiction
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In a way, recognizing a social media addiction is easy. It’s best to consult with a mental health professional to be sure, but there are key differences between a habit and a hobby. Signs of social media addiction include:
Social Media and Mental Health
Anyone can fall down a social media or gaming rabbit hole. The question is, are they able or willing to come back out for a while, to handle work, school, chores, to socialize?
If so, it’s not so concerning. But it can be a slippery slope, and some behaviors mirror drug or alcohol abuse.
People with depression or anxiety disorders seem more vulnerable to getting hooked. One person might use drugs or alcohol to numb themselves, while another may log on to escape. It almost becomes a chicken-and-egg argument, whether social media addiction feeds a person’s depression (or whatever mental disorder they face) or the depression feeds the addiction. In any case, there are a few red flags to consider. Too much social media (or gaming or internet time) can:
- Lower self-esteem (especially if a person is negatively comparing their life to someone else’s)
- Make a person feel more lonely and isolated
- Worsen anxiety or depression (sometimes from a fear of missing out)
- Develop social anxiety disorders
- Lead to less physical activity, which can lead to other issues
- Make a person neglect real life/in-person relationships
- Cause grades or work performance to plummet
- Disrupt a person’s sleep, especially right before bedtime (that blue light effect)
Risk Factor In Youth/Teens
A recent survey found that 53% of U.S. children have a smartphone by the time they turn 11, and 84% of teens have their own phones, too.
These days, kids use phones to watch online videos, which is cutting into TV time.
In some cases screen media becomes a more affordable entertainment. Youngsters in families with incomes less than $35,000 a year average an extra two hours a day on their devices, compared to households earning more than $100,000. Basically the family that can’t afford after school programs or dance lessons find entertainment in their handhelds and laptops — not necessarily a bad thing, if some of that time is spent productively.
The survey revealed some differences, too, each drawing some concern.
Girls gravitate to music and spend a lot more time on social media — seven out of every 10 do, in fact. The potential problem with social media use is its links to anxiety, depression, and cyberbullying. Those all can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including substance use and even suicide.
Boys — nearly three-quarters of respondents — admitted they loved playing online video games — compared to only one out of four girls saying the same. Pew has found 97% of teen boys and 83% of girls play some kind of video games.
Either way it’s a lot of gamers, and video games have raised alarm bells in recent years, with the World Health Organization going so far as to add “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases, categorizing it as a behavioral addiction. (And interestingly, China, which views addiction as a sign of moral weakness, has made internet addiction an official disorder.)
Minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic teens, report spending more time on social media, compared to white teens. The good sides of that are it can lead to more civic and political engagement.
Gaming or spending time on social media aren’t necessarily the road to ruin, however. WHO warns that it’s not the hours spent online or gaming that warrant concern. Rather, it’s when someone can’t stop. If social media or other online activity negatively affects someone’s life — interfering with school, work, sleep, friendships, family relationships, or even self-care — then it may be time to seek help. Talk to a Intake Coordinator
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Treatment for Social Media Addiction
Treatment can be a bit challenging, in a red tape sort of way. Online addiction isn’t recognized by the most recent DSM-V, labeled a condition meriting further study. There is no official designation, which will affect how doctors and therapists approach it, and it’ll be harder to run through insurance.
There are ways to wean oneself off social media, however, before it might become a problem:
- Remove social media apps from your phone or other handheld devices. Making them less accessible may help reduce use.
- Shut off your phone while at work or school, when you need to focus on a task, or at mealtimes.
- Change your phone settings. Turn off notifications so you won’t be tempted to check each time the machine pings.
- Keep the phone or tablet out of your room or office. Out of sight can be out of mind.
- Find a new hobby that doesn’t require technology. Sports, drawing, knitting, cooking, gardening — anything that lets you unplug in a healthy way is good. It may feel strange, at first, and possibly even boring, but it’ll put you more in the moment.
- Use a timer. If you give yourself 60 minutes to check your favorite social media apps, stick to that and not a minute over.
- Track your time. Apps like Moment (for iOS and Android) or your iPhone’s built-in Screen Time feature let you know how much time you’re logging in. The “Most Used” filter could prove eye-opening and show what’s the biggest time suck.
- Try face time (not FaceTime) if possible. Try to see friends and family in person if you can. (We’ll be able to do that again, after COVID-19. One day.)
- For families, setting boundaries can be a good idea. Parents can put together a Family Media Plan to keep areas of the home screen-free, including charging devices outside the bedroom, or keeping mealtimes tech-free.
If such measures don’t help, then don’t be afraid to reach out. Social media addiction may not be a formal DSM-V diagnosis, but because it shows many of the signs of a behavioral addiction, cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and even group therapy may help.
- npr.org – Lawmaker Aims to Curb Social Media Addiction with New Bill
- nih.gov – Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views
- healthline.com – What’s the Difference Between Dopamine and Serotonin?
- healthline.com – What is Social Media Addiction?
- npr.org – Is ‘Internet Addiction’ Real?
- sleepfoundation.org – Screen Time and Insomnia: What It Means for Teens
- npr.org – It’s A Smartphone Life: More Than Half of U.S. Children Now Have One
- stopbullying.gov – Effects of Bullying
- pewresearch.org – 5 Facts about Americans and Video Games
- npr.org – Is ‘Gaming Disorder’ an Illness? WHO Says Yes, Adding It to Its List of Diseases
- washingtonpost.com – How Social Media Helps Young People — Especially Minorities and the Poor — Get Politically Engaged
- calstate.edu – The Growing Case for Social Media Addiction
- declutterthemind.com – How to Take a Social Media Detox and Improve Your Mental Health
- goodhousekeeping.com – Here’s How to Do a Social Media Detox the Right Way
- healthychildren.org – Family Media Plan
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.
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