Recently, I read an online plea by a woman asking for help on how to deal with her husband returning tired from work and spending hours scrolling through social media for the rest of the evening, basically ignoring his family and what else is going on around him in the house.
She recounts how they were once on their way to dinner, and he noticed that he left his phone behind at home…and they had to return to get it as he could not cope without staying connected.
The responses from others were on a similar line of thought that everyone seems to be addicted to their phones and that it takes a lot of effort to get unhooked. Some suggested therapy while others even suggested to the woman to send messages to her husband to try to get in touch with him again as he sits on the same sofa next to her.
Why is Social Media highly addictive?
The ‘dopamine loop’
Using social media can lead to physical and psychological addiction because it triggers the brain’s reward system to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger between neurons) involved in neurological and physiological functioning.
Social media addiction has been compared to cocaine rush. In cocaine addiction, users experience a short period of euphoria, and the drug becomes easily addictive. Social media can lead to similar dopamine releases to the brain, giving the same temporary euphoric experience that cocaine addicts look for. Likes, comments, shares from social media platforms have been shown to lead to an addiction similar to cocaine rush.
Causes and effects of Social Media addiction
Experts warn that social media use can be addictive and the consequences can be the same as any other addiction: anxiety, dependence, irritability, lack of self-control, isolation etc.
Some of the main causes of addiction to social media are recognised to include low self-esteem, personal dissatisfaction, depression, and even lack of affection.
Traditionally social media addiction has been associated with young people aged between 16 and 24. Experts assert that adolescents are at the highest risk of falling into addiction for three basic reasons: their tendency to be impulsive, their need for a widespread and growing social influence, and finally, the necessity for them to reaffirm their group identity.
However, with the growth of newer and more appealing social media platforms, people in older age groups are equally susceptible to growing addicted to the use of these apps and platforms. Studies have shown that social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be more addictive than tobacco and alcohol as they are easily and freely accessible.
- FOMO – The fear of missing out if a person is not constantly connected and checking their newsfeeds is real and is often a motivator for people to develop social media addiction.
- Stress and Frustration – Feeling stressed when there is limited or interrupted internet access or the social network is down.
- Glued to the phone – Constantly checking social media which may interfere with normal social activities.
- Risking it too much – Using social media in risky situations, such as while driving.
- Avoiding face-to-face communication – Preferring to communicate with friends and family through social media rather than face-to-face.
- The stress to share – Feeling the need to share everyday things all the time.
- Highly influenced by influencers – Following other people’s lives online, and aligning one’s choices depending on what one sees online.
Social Media increase loneliness, anxiety and depression
While loneliness, anxiety and depression may lead to a person seeking less social interactions and engages more on social media, this in turn may lead to a vicious cycle of person engaging for a long time online and feeling increasingly lonely, anxious and depressed.
As human beings we need social interactions for healthy development, which surprisingly can be mimicked by the feedback that is received online, through likes and comments from others who are far away form the individual.
Consequently, a person’s excessive use of social media may exacerbate their isolation from real interactions with others in the real world.
On top of that, excessive social media exposure can skew a person’s perception of reality when they start comparing their lives to others’. Typically, social media only captures people’s successes, giving an unrealistic standard of success that is so hard for others to match or achieve.
Tips to help you avoid the pitfalls of Social Media Addiction
As in the case of all addictions, prevention is better than cure. In this regard there are some simple practices that can be very effective in reducing the excessive use of social media that leads to dependence. The following are among the most effective:
- Reduce time between connections: Consciously set a minimum time of 15 minutes between connections. You can start to increase this amount gradually from 5 minutes upwards.
- Place phone in different room: Do without your mobile at key times of the day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and actively engage in conversations with other people.
- Disable push notifications: Push notifications can distract you from what’s going on around you. Turning them off will help you focus less on your phone and more on the people around you.
- Put your mobile on silent: Don’t even use it as a watch or alarm, to avoid temptation.
- Find healthy alternatives to social media: Set a minimum time each day for completely offline activities such as sport, reading or listening to music.
- Meet with other people instead of staying alone: Engage in more social engagements that require face-to-face interactions with other people outside the house.
- Clean-up your mobile: Delete unnecessary apps and WhatsApp groups.
- Seek professional help: Behavioural change can happen and can be supported by a professional counsellor.
Evidently, research indicates that limiting social media use is optimal for mental health and adopting some of these strategies for setting limits can result in a healthier psychological outcome. If as an individual you may feel overwhelmed in trying to overcome this hurdle of social media addiction, it is advisable to seek professional assistance that will lead to a more rewarding and fulfilling life.
Writer for Therapy Hunter as well as psychology
professor at Malta University.