Scrolling through social media has become an increasingly popular activity over the last decade. The majority of internet users worldwide spend several hours of a day on social media alone. Sadly, this seemingly harmless activity can transform into a dangerous addiction.
Positive and negative impact of social media
Social media has impacted our lives in many positive ways:
- People all over the world can easily connect.
- Information can be popularized almost instantly and without intermediaries.
- We can stay in touch with our friends, no matter where they are.
- We have gained a space to express ourselves.
- It’s easier to find like-minded people.
However, despite all those positives, it is becoming increasingly clear that overall, social media has not made us happier and more connected. In fact, people often end up detached from family and friends due to social media.
You might have seen couples sitting in a restaurant in what could have been a romantic dinner, constantly scrolling their phone and not talking to each other. You have also surely known some teenagers who only spend their free time in front of the computer or on their smartphone without ever meeting their friends in real life.
Overall, social media causes us to spend far more time on the computer and far less time in direct contact with other people, so it often leads to less social connection and happiness.
What is social media addiction?
Similarly to many other activities and substances, social media usage can also turn into an addition. If a person is addicted to social media, they will display symptoms that go beyond those described in the previous section. They will suffer from an uncontrollable drive to log on and will spend so many hours online that it will affect their daily life adversely.
Psychologists estimate that as many as 5 to 10% of people in Western Europe and the US meet the criteria for social media addiction. For teenagers and young adults, this number is even higher at around 15%.
Addictive social media use looks like any substance use disorder. It may include symptoms such as:
- mood modification,
- salience (i.e., behavioral, cognitive, and emotional preoccupation with social media),
- tolerance (i.e., ever-increasing use of social media over time),
- withdrawal symptoms (i.e., experiencing unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms when social media use is restricted or stopped),
- conflict (i.e., interpersonal problems ensue because of social media usage),
- relapse (i.e., addicted individuals quickly revert to their excessive social media usage after an abstinence period).
How does social media affect the brain?
Social media is addictive both physically and psychologically. According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking apps lights up the same part of the brain that ignites when taking an addictive substance.
When a person experiences something rewarding or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.
People can activate the same reward mechanism by using social media. When we get a notification, such as a like, a share, or a comment, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways, causing the individual to feel pleasure. This way, social media provides an endless amount of immediate rewards in the form of attention. Therefore, the brain rewires itself through this positive reinforcement, making people desire likes, shares, and comments.
Another way social media impacts us is by making us more self-centered. In real life, without social media, people talk about themselves an average of 30-40% of their time. Social media is all about showing off, though, so while there, about 80% of the time is used to think and talk of our own accomplishments.
It might not seem like much of a concern that people use social media to get short-term dopamine as a reward or become more self-centered. However, social media use becomes more problematic when someone starts to view social networking apps as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression.
Many people report that their use of social media increases when they feel stressed, lonely or depressed. This can easily lead to a vicious cycle, as an increased usage of social media often only leads to relief in the short term. In the long term, it causes the very symptoms of stress, loneliness and depression.
Recognizing social media addiction
All of us use social media, so how can we decide how much is considered normal? Where do we draw the line between normal usage and addictive behavior?
To determine if someone is at risk of developing an addiction to social media, they should answer these six questions:
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media?
- Do you feel an urge to use social media?
- Do you use social media more often when stressed, lonely, or depressed?
- Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
- Do you become restless or troubled if unable to use social media?
- Do you use social media so much that it has a negative impact on your personal relationships, your work, or your studies?
Alternatively, you can take a social media addiction test on Psychometrica. This more structured approach with pre-defined answers may make it easier for you to decide how to describe your personal experience with social media. Your result will motivate you to reflect on your social media usage.
Social media addiction is similar to other behavioral addictions. This means it has some specific signs and symptoms that need to be assessed and diagnosed. Psychometric scales, like the Leeds Social Media Addiction Scale (LSMAS), are helpful for measuring the intensity of the addiction level. However, diagnosing social media addiction requires a thorough evaluation and often includes an assessment by a mental health professional.
Social media addiction stats
It is important to be aware of the existence of social media addiction, but without data, one may not realize the extent and severity of this problem worldwide. Consider these statistics to understand just how much social media addiction affects society at large:
- Almost 4 billion people (50% of the world’s population) use social media.
- Over 250 million people are suffering from internet and social media addictions worldwide, which has led numerous countries to announce social media addiction as a major health problem.
- A study found that social media use of over 30 minutes a day is related to negative mental health outcomes such as depression and loneliness.
- The average TikTok user spends 1.5 hours per day on the app (only on TikTok, not counting any other social media).
- 8 to 12-year-olds in the US use social media and other entertainment sites for an average of 5.3 hours per day.
- Teenagers in the US use social media and other entertainment sites for an average of almost 9 hours per day.
- More than half of parents are concerned about their children’s use of social media.
Curing social media addiction
Social media addictions are extremely difficult to break. When thinking of dealing with an addiction, the case of alcohol or drugs may come to mind – in case of these substances, it is recommended to go cold turkey, which means to stop using them completely. However, when it comes to social media, this is often not desired nor possible. Instead, social media usage should be limited to an acceptable level.
Here are some strategies to you might be able to use:
- Delete all social media apps to make the platforms harder to access
- Limit your social media usage to certain time slots during the day
- Turn off social media notifications
- Have at least one day a week without using your phone
At Psychometrica, we provide free webinars on combatting social media addiction. Our counselors can give you advice on more useful strategies for coping with social media addiction and how you might best implement them into your life to improve your overall well-being.
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