TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or whatever the platform is, social media connects us and offers a variety of benefits to our lives, but for certain users these platforms can also be highly addictive and dangerous. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased technological use across the board, especially among children and adolescents, and has exacerbated problems associated with digital use and has pronounced pre-existing digital addictions. Individuals have increasingly turned to social media as a means to connect with others who they are socially distanced from, and although social media has a host of benefits, it has left many isolated, depressed, and addicted.
Why Is Social Media Addictive?
Social media is addictive for the same reason that heroin or alcohol are addictive, and it has to do with the brain. When a social media user gets engagement via a “like,” “follow” or “comment”, or even gets excited about opening their social media app, the brain releases “feel good” neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. In activating the brain’s reward system, over time the brain becomes reliant on this type of stimulation in order to induce pleasure. The brain becomes conditioned to want to use social media as a means of excitement, euphoria, and wellbeing. Undoing the damage done to the brain resulting from social media dependence can take months to correct.
There are also psychological factors that contribute to the addictive nature of social media, Fear Of Missing Out, also known as FOMO. Individuals often joke about FOMO, but FOMO exists and is prevalent in today’s society. FOMO is the anxiety individuals feel when they believe they are being excluded from others or have an intense desire to know what others are up to. Social media is a perfect breeding ground for this type of psychological craving to be realized, where individuals can sit from the comfort of their own home and scroll social media to see what their social network, or even strangers, are up to.
Furthermore, it is human nature to crave connection to others, and social media presents an opportunity for individuals to feel connected, especially during this time of COVID-19 when individuals are craving connection more than ever. Unfortunately, social media is a false sense of connection, falling short of the benefits of real human interaction. Lack of human connection and interaction can then breed feelings of loneliness and low mood which in turn contributes to digital addiction as well as to other addictions and/or mental health concerns. It can become a vicious cycle.
Although social media platforms often serve as a distraction from real-life problems, it is always important to note that social media is not all bad, and in fact there are numerous benefits to social media such as virtual connections with individuals across the globe; providing tools for organization, social justice, and awareness; providing platforms for art, culture and business, among various other benefits. It is important for individuals to find healthy ways to relax and connect with others, and some are able to do that via social media in moderation. It is when individuals begin to develop signs of a social media dependence or other digital addiction that it can turn into a problem and lead to negative consequences in their lives.
What Are the Consequences of a Social Media Addiction or Other Digital Dependence?
Social media addiction and other digital addictions can lead to a variety of life problems as the addicted individual may begin to neglect important life areas such as work, school, relationships, sleep, hygiene, self-care, physical health, and other such important life areas at the expense of engaging in social media, gaming, or other technological mediums. Due to the common use of digital devices, digital addictions can go unnoticed for months or years as the individual is increasingly consumed by their technological device, leading to long-term brain chemistry disruptions, mental health concerns, and other pervasive problems.
Social media addiction has been found to be highly correlated with lower self-esteem, increased isolation and loneliness, anxiety, depression, and emotional instability. This is in part due to the fact that individuals tend to only post positive aspects of their lives, their “highlight reel.” In doing so, the life of others can appear glamorous through the filter of social media. Individuals on the viewing end are left seeing their friends’ delicious meals, smiles with friends, lavish vacations, and other such happy moments. This can result in feeling more insecure about our own lives, and lead to feelings of sadness, shame, anxiety, or other such negative emotional states. Social media addiction can also lead to disrupted sleep patterns, poor grades or career performance, as well as deterioration of real-life relationships with family, friends, and overall ability to socially connect and engage with others.
In extreme cases, social media addiction can result in death. Although individuals generally think of fatal addictions in relation to drug or alcohol overdose, digital addictions can be fatal as well. This is especially true when individuals turn to their phones while driving a motor vehicle or while engaging in another high-risk behavior. There have also been rare cases in which individuals have gone for extremely long durations without eating, drinking or sleeping at the expense of engaging in gaming or other digital outlets resulting in audio or visual hallucinations, hospitalization and even death.
What Are The Signs of a Social Media Addiction or Digital Addiction?
- If you find yourself using social media for longer durations than intended.
- If you are unable to moderate or abstain from social media use.
- If you spend a lot of time thinking about social media, curating social media posts, or engaging in social media.
- If you engage in social media compulsively or experience cravings and urges to engage in social media when not using social media.
- If your social media use is contributing to unmanageability or neglect in important life areas such as work, school, hygiene, sleep, self-care or relationships.
- If you continue to use social media despite it contributing to problems in your life.
- If you lose interest in social and leisure activities that you once found pleasurable at the expense of engaging in social media.
- If you use social media in dangerous situations such as when operating a motor vehicle, crossing the street, cooking, or engaging in another potentially dangerous activity.
- If you find yourself experiencing stress, anxiety, low mood, irritability, or other unwanted and unhealthy mental health symptoms as a result of social media yet continue to engage in social media, or if you experience these symptoms when not engaging in social media.
- If you find yourself needing to engage in social media more frequently and for longer durations to receive the same sense of gratification, or if you find yourself engaging in social media to induce pleasure or escape reality.
- If you find yourself having to lie or hide your social media use from your loved ones, teachers, supervisor, colleagues or other individuals.
What Should I Do If I Have a Social Media Addiction or other Digital Addiction?
Depending on the individual and their relationship with social media and their digital use, it may be a digital behavior that they can learn to develop a healthy and balanced relationship with, or in other cases it may be something that they need to cut out of their life completely. In either case, there are many lifestyle changes that will need to take place, and in some cases professional help may be required such as from an addiction specialist or behavioral coach. An assessment from a licensed addiction professional is always encouraged in order to determine the nature of the individual’s addiction and create a customized plan of recovery for the individual that meets their unique needs.
Generally speaking, there are both practical and behavioral tools that are often used in the treatment of social media addiction or other digital dependencies to help individuals abstain or moderate their social media exposure or other digital usage. The treatment for every individual is unique, so some individuals may need to abstain from digitl devices or specific platforms for 2 to 4 weeks or longer and then work towards moderation, others may be able to moderate earlier in treatment without abstaining, and others may be encouraged to abstain long-term if they are proven to be unable to moderate their usage. In a world where digital use in some form is essentially necessary, finding a healthy balance can be challenging but there are always ways to navigate every situation for every individuals.
Addiction specialists such as addiction psychiatrists, addiction therapists, or other such mental health professionals who specialize in social media dependence and other digital addictions can utilize a variety of therapeutic modalities to help individuals reduce cravings, cope with triggers, and build a healthier lifestyle. For example, Motivational Interviewing may be utilized to help individuals better understand why their relationship with social media or their digital device is problematic. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is often used to help challenge and change unhealthy or unhelpful thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with digital use and their overall life.
Behavioral tools are utilized in order to improve an individual’s life and help them find pleasure outside of their digital device. For example, it might be improving their relationships, developing social and leisure activities, engaging in self-care, improving sleep hygiene, exercising, eating healthy nutritious meals, getting out in nature, or discovering other natural and healthy outlets to improve one’s mood, occupy idle time, and ultimately make them less inclined to utilize social media or other digital platforms. Medications such as anti-depressants or mood stabilizers can also be helpful to treat problems that often coincide with digital addictions such as ADHD, anxiety and depression.
Group therapy and/or wilderness programs are also a common form of digital addiction treatment. Group therapy allows for likeminded individuals to establish a sense of universality and recognize that they are not alone in their thoughts, feelings or behaviors. Group members are able to give and receive support to one another in a meaningful way. Similarly, mutual help groups such as Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous, Computer Gaming Addicts Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Refuge Recovery can be very beneficial. Wilderness programs help individuals disconnect from their digital use and reconnect with nature, others and themselves.
When it comes to adolescents who are living with parents or other such dependents, there may be active work with caregivers or other family members to educate them about digital addiction, help them set boundaries with their child’s digital use and improve the overall family dynamic and child-parent communication and relationship.
Lastly, some practical technological tools to reduce digital use include taking the platforms off of the digital device, setting restrictions to certain platforms, setting time-outs on certain platforms or on internet connection (for example, after 30-minutes the social media application will automatically log-out and not allow the user to sign back in for another 24 hours), as well as setting and monitoring screen-time usage for digital devices or for particular digital platforms.
To learn more about digital addictions, and specifically gaming addiction, please review our Digital Addiction and Gaming Recovery service page as well as our blog titled, “Are eSports The Next Addiction Epidemic?”
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