The Ultimate Guide to Social Media Addiction

There are approximately 4.3 billion active social media users around the world, which represents about 55% of the global population.  In the United States, it is estimated that up to 95% of teens and over 70% of adults are using social media.  While social media can be a valuable tool with a host of benefits, it also comes with many consequences.  More research is needed to fully understand the impact social media is having on individuals and society, but there is ample evidence reflecting the profound harm it is causing.  Social media use has been linked with various mental health issues, behavioral complications, relational problems, and can become a crippling addiction.


Social media can be easily abused, used excessively and habitually, and ultimately develop into a social media dependence.  Furthermore, social media use is linked to an increase in anxiety, depression, and a variety of other mental health issues.  Social media is also contributing to loss of sleep, eating disorders or unhealthy eating habits, body dysmorphia or body image dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, poor performance in school and work, increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide among a host of other issues.

The exponential increase in social media use over the past two decades coincides with the increase in mental health issues individuals are experiencing over the same timeframe; and while correlation doesn’t equate to causation, research reflects that increased social media use is certainly an important contributor to today’s mental health crisis.  As such, it is imperative to be aware of the signs and symptoms of social media addiction and knowledgeable about what you can do if you or a loved one is experiencing problematic social media use.

Before moving on, it is important to acknowledge that social media is not all bad.  Mindful, intentional and moderate social media use can offer users a way to relax, to stay in touch, to connect, to learn, to communicate, to explore hobbies and interests, among other benefits.  Social media can also be used for educational, career, or even therapeutic purposes.  As with many things in life, social media has both positive and negative characteristics, but when abused can become problematic and destructive.

What Is Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction involves the pathological compulsive and excessive use of social media despite adverse consequences to one’s daily life and daily functioning including but not limited to career or academic performance, mental health, physical health, relationships, and responsibilities.  Social media addiction is characterized by the loss of control over one’s use of social media and a dependence on the behavior.

Individuals who are addicted to social media may spend hours upon hours scrolling through their social media feeds, checking notifications, creating or consuming content, or responding to messages, even at the detriment to their own wellbeing and despite interventions from loved ones around them.  While the amount of time spent on social media is an important indicator of a social media addiction, it is not the sole factor.  Rather, it is the impact the behavior is having on daily life as well as any obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior regarding social media.

Social media addiction, sometimes referred to as social media dependence, is not currently classified as a clinical disorder in the United States by the American Psychiatric Association or globally by the World Health Organization.  Nonetheless, social media addiction is a growing concern for medical professionals and is treated by addiction specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists, recovery coaches, and therapists specializing in social media addiction.  A growing number of addiction researchers and addiction clinicians see a need to officially recognize social media addiction as a disorder in order to allow for adequate diagnosis, treatment, and evidence-based recommendations; but for now more research is needed.

Why Do People Become Addicted to Social Media?

Social media addiction centers in the brain’s reward system.  The use of social media produces a pleasurable effect through the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine.  This pleasurable effect can be felt instantaneously by the social media user immediately upon opening their social media on their digital device, or in some cases even by thinking about social media.  The pleasurable effect is exacerbated by receiving engagements such as comments, likes, shares, or receiving messages.  Additionally, receiving positive social media engagement serves as a way of seeking external validation which can also be habit forming.  Dopamine is also released for passive social media users who may simply scroll through their feeds without ever posting, commenting, liking or sharing any content.

As a result of repetitive and habitual social media use, a social media user may begin engaging with social media compulsively and become reliant on this form of digital stimulation to induce pleasure.  Over time individuals may lose interest in other hobbies, activities and relationships at the expense of craving this digital dopamine.

As with all addictions, social media addiction is a multifaceted issue.  Beyond the brain, social media is designed to entice people to be engaged.  In other words, social media developers have a primary goal of designing their platforms to be as addictive as possible.  Platforms are constantly enhancing their algorithms to keep users engaged endlessly.

Social media is also enticing because it can make users feel less lonely and more connected, despite there being research that reflects the opposite to be true.  Social media is also incredibly accessible, with internet access nearly everywhere and a mobile device right in an individual’s pocket.  Furthermore individuals may experience a “fear of missing out,” known as FOMO, if they are not constantly checking their social media feeds for updates.  FOMO has a psychological effect of keeping users coming back for more.

Anyone who uses social media is susceptible to social media addiction, but those with a history of addiction in their families are more likely to develop an addiction than those who do not have a history of addiction, be it with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or any other behavioral addiction.  Those with easy access to digital devices and the internet and/or those who have friends or family members constantly using social media may also be more at risk.  Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD can also make some more susceptible to developing a problem with social media, as well as those who have a history of other addictive behaviors.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Social Media Addiction?

Those who have a problematic relationship with social media are likely to progress in their dysfunction without an intervention of some kind.  As such, it is important to recognize signs and symptoms of problematic social media use in order to address the issue immediately before it gets worse.  While no formal clinical criteria for social media addiction or social media dependenc exists at this time, there are some warning signs and symptoms to watch out for.

Specifically, some signs and symptoms of social media addiction may include:

What Is The Impact of Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction has a variety of negative consequences that can result from excessive use.  Every individual is unique and will be impacted in different ways.  Social media dependence can range on a spectrum in terms of the severity of the problem, and consequences of social media use can be quite subjective in terms of their gravity.  As such, the impact of social media addiction will vary widely from person to person, and from family to family.  Some risks associated with excessive social media use include but are not limited to:

Aforementioned risks have not only been found to be associated with excessive social media use, but also among moderate users of social media platforms.

What Is The Treatment For Social Media Addiction?

While more research is needed in the field of social media addiction for subsequent evidence-based treatments, social media addiction is commonly treated with behavioral modification therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  This method of treatment helps individuals deal with obsessive, negative and destructive thought patterns and feelings that impact their behavior.

Holistic methods can also be incorporated into treatment to help the entire person heal both physically and psychologically.  Holistic methods may include an emphasis on nutrition, physical activity, meditation, yoga, reiki, sound therapy, hypnotherapy, breathwork, art therapy, music therapy, and experiential therapy or nature therapy to name a few.  There is also an emphasis on building life skills and incorporating structure and routine into the lives of those in recovery.

Individuals with a social media addiction who have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or other psychiatric conditions may require medication assisted treatment.  Such issues will also be addressed in therapy in tandem with social media addiction.  Those who experience eating disorders or body dysmorphia disorder will also undergo specialty therapies for their specific needs.

Depending on the severity of the social media addiction, individuals may be treated on an inpatient or outpatient basis.  Inpatient treatment offers 24-hour live-in care in a structured and supervised environment while outpatient treatment offers individuals therapeutic services while they live in their home and can continue to engage in educational or career activities.

Furthermore, depending on the severity of the addiction and the goals of the individual in collaboration with their addiction specialist, there are abstinence-based approaches as well as moderation management approaches to treating social media addiction.  Moderation management approaches often have a period of abstinence at the onset of treatment.

Social media addiction is most commonly treated by mental health professionals such as a licensed therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist specializing in digital addiction.  Some individuals may choose to receive support from a social media addiction specialist such as a recovery coach who specializes in social media addiction.  Wilderness therapies have also become an appealing alternative to conventional addiction treatment settings.

What Can I Do If I Have A Social Media Addiction?

Stopping a social media addiction is easier said than done.  With an awareness that social media is problematic for you and a desire to change there are certain steps you can take to abstain from social media or moderate social media use.  Practical steps may include:

If social media use is excessive and causing impairment, and if individuals are unable to moderate or abstain from social media use on their own, professional help from a digital addiction specialist is recommended.  If individuals are experiencing pervasive mental health issues, eating disorders, self-harmful behaviors, or suicidal ideation call 988 or 911 immediately to seek help from a mental health professional

What Role Does Family and Friends Play In Social Media Addiction Recovery?

Family and friends can play a critical role in the recovery of their loved one’s social media addiction.  It is important for family and friends to engage in their own self-care or method of treatment so that they do not become overwhelmed or burned out with their loved one’s problematic behavior.  Engaging in their own care will also model appropriate behavior to their addicted loved one.

Loved ones can also learn to set healthy boundaries so that they refrain from co-dependent, enabling, or triggering behaviors.  Family and friends should also learn to communicate effectively and listen to their loved one’s needs or concerns.  Family therapy or family coaching for social media addiction can be very helpful, especially in early recovery or even during active addiction.

Family and friends who want to play a role in their loved ones recovery from social media addiction should also take some time to learn about the nature of social media addiction (example: how addiction affects the brain), signs of social media addiction (example: isolating at the expense of spending time on social media), and methods of treatment (example: behavioral therapy or mutual help groups).  Family and friends should also learn about moderation versus abstinence based approaches of social media addiction recovery, treatment options including the difference between outpatient and inpatient treatment, what their loved ones goals are, as well as what to do if their loved one’s issue resurfaces.

For more information on social media addiction and recovery please read Family Addiction Specialist’s Digital Addiction and Gaming Recovery service page.

For more information on New York City social media addiction treatment or digital addiction treatment and to find the best social media addiction counselor in NYC, or for general therapy and mental health counseling, or to inquire about Family Addiction Specialist’s private concierge sober coach Manhattan, recovery coach Manhattan, sober companion Manhattan, Manhattan addiction therapy services and/or our Manhattan teletherapy services (online therapy/virtual therapy) for drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, cryptocurrency addiction, day trading addiction, video game addiction or other digital addictions and technology addiction please contact Family Addiction Specialist via email at

Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht

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