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Updated on August 22, 2022

Social Media Addiction: Is It Real? And How to Cut Back

Is Social Media Addiction Real?

Social media refers to any mobile app or website that lets people create and share content, talk with other people, and participate in online social networking. Some popular social media platforms include Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

People use social media sites or apps for various purposes. Some people use them to connect with family and friends, while others use them for work purposes, like to reach their target audience. Younger users tend to use social media like virtual scrapbooks, documenting their lives with pictures. 

In some cases, social media use becomes problematic, particularly when it has adversely affected other life aspects. This includes people being overly concerned with their social media accounts, having an uncontrollable urge to use them constantly, or spending excess time on social media platforms.1

Health professionals do not yet recognize social media addiction as a diagnosable disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) doesn’t include social media addiction in its list of medical conditions.2 

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What Makes Social Media Addictive?

There are a few explanations for why people become addicted to social media. One theory is associated with the network effect of smartphones and the fear of missing out (FOMO)

The idea behind the network effect is that the value of a product or service increases when the number of users increases. In the case of smartphones, many people want to have one because almost everybody has one.3

Social media is most frequently accessed through smartphones, so it’s not surprising their usage is closely related. The mobile nature of smartphones has contributed to excessive checking habits. Many people avoid missing the latest news or trends because they don’t want to miss anything. This is referred to as FOMO.4

Another theory involves dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter that gets released when people engage in pleasurable activities like having sex or eating chocolate. It's the same brain chemical that explains why people get addicted to certain drugs.  

Smartphones can contribute to a virtually unlimited supply of social media stimuli. A positive stimulus—a “like,” laughing faces, or positive comments on pictures from peers—can trigger dopamine release. It may not be as intense as a drug’s effect, but it still reinforces continuous social media usage.5, 6

Health Effects of Social Media Addiction

Sleep Disruption

Social media is indirectly implicated with sleeping problems through its close links with smartphones and other devices. 

Electronic media use is negatively related to sleep duration and positively to sleep difficulties. These also correlate with depressive symptoms.7

Blue light emitted by electronic gadgets is the primary culprit behind such sleep disruption. It suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone that makes people sleepy.8

Mental Health Issues

A systematic review of 23 studies connected depression, anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem with problematic use of smartphones (and, in turn, social media). 9

About 73% of people who regularly use social media experience anxiety. This makes sense, considering many adults in the U.S. spend 2 to 4 hours per day on their devices.5

In a survey of 23,532 Norwegians, lower self-esteem and narcissism were some effects associated with excessive social media use. These results supported the idea that social media addiction reflects a need to feed one’s ego and an attempt to block negative self-evaluations.1

Increased Risk of Injury

Phone use is a significant contributor to automobile accidents, with 15 to 30% of vehicle crashes involving at least one distracted driver.10

The figures don’t directly refer to social media use, but there's an implication since phones and social media usage are closely related.4

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How Social Media Affects Teens

Studies report higher social media addiction among younger users. This is not surprising as social media platforms play a vital role in the social lives of teens and young adults. 

Moreover, social media represent an area where younger users can explore and develop their identities and cultures without interruptions from their parents or other authority figures.1

Social media use negatively affects teens in several ways: 

Sleeping Troubles and Mental Health Conditions

The more time young adults spent on social media, the more likely they were to have depressive symptoms and problems sleeping.1, 7, 11

Negative Body Feedback

A University of Pittsburgh study found a correlation between time spent scrolling through social media apps and negative body image feedback. 

Those who spent more time had 2.2 times the risk of having eating and body image concerns. Those who spent the most time had 2.6 times the risk.11 

The need for “likes” can also drive teens to compare and make choices they would not usually take. Such decisions include changing appearance, engaging in negative behaviors, and accepting risky social media challenges.

Cyberbullying

Teen girls are at risk of cyberbullying through social media use, although teen boys are not exempt either. Cyberbullying is linked to depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.11

Stunted Social Skills

There’s less in-person face time with increasing social media use. And, social skills require practice. 

Social media has, in some instances, made interactions, emotional support, and compassion difficult, especially when teens spend more time engaging online than they do in person.4, 11

What are the Signs of Social Media Addiction?

You might have social media addiction if you show some or all of the following symptoms:1, 3, 4, 12

  1. Uncontrollable urge to log in or use social media apps or sites
  2. Continued social media use even though it leads to harmful situations (like driving while using your phone) or emotional symptoms (like anxiety, anger, or stress)
  3. Continued social media use even though it leads to relationship problems or problematic behaviors (such as checking social media while having dinner with friends)
  4. Devoting so much time to social media that it leads to neglect of school, work, or personal obligations
  5. Avoiding social activities and hobbies because of social media
  6. Desiring or attempting to control social media use but with no success
  7. Gradually increasing social media use to get the same pleasure (tolerance) 
  8. Experiencing distress or restlessness if social media use is prohibited (withdrawal symptoms) 
  9. Using social media to reduce negative feelings or forget problems (escapism)
  10. Lying or concealing addictive social media usage 

With internet gaming disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a “condition requiring furthers,” it may not be long before social media addiction and other internet use-related conditions get the same consideration.2

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5 Ways to Cut Back on Social Media Use

The good news is that the brain’s self-control system is still intact in people with social media addiction. Compare this to an addictive substance like cocaine, which impairs a person’s self-control.6

To gain control over excessive social media, you can:

  1. Set boundaries: Consider limiting social media use in specific time blocks. 
  2. Manage notifications: Set filters so you receive only the most important messages. This may prevent you from scrolling for long time periods. 
  3. Do a digital detox: Taking a break from your electronic gadgets can benefit your mental health.13
  4. Uninstall apps: This is similar to quitting alcohol or drug use the “cold turkey” way. 
  5. Talk to kids about social media use: This is for parents concerned about their kids’ excessive social media use. Set goals or ground rules, like the non-screen time during dinner or family times.6

Treatment for Social Media Addiction

For people who are genuinely addicted to social media use, seeking treatment may be the best way to address the problem. 

One common successful treatment option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is talk therapy, where a mental health professional helps people improve how they think and behave.4

Unlike alcohol, drug, and other addictions, the goal of social media addiction treatment is controlled use, not abstinence. This is because it’s impossible to stop a person from completely using their gadgets or accessing the Internet.

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Resources

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  1. Andreassen, Cecilie Shou, Ståle Pallesen, and Mark Griffiths. “The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey.Addict Behav vol. 64 :287-293.
  2. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).American Psychiatric Association. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
  3. Elgan, Mike. “Social Media Addiction is a Bigger Problem Than You Think.Computerworld. December 14, 2015. 
  4. Griffiths, Mark. “Addicted to Social Media?Psychology Today. May 7, 2018.
  5. Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.SITN (Science in the News). Harvard University The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. May 1, 2018.
  6. Ricci, Jeanne. “The Growing Case for Social Media Addiction.The California State University. June 28, 2018.
  7. Lemola, Sakari et al. “Adolescents' electronic media use at night, sleep disturbance, and depressive symptoms in the smartphone age.J Youth Adolesc vol. 44,2 : 405-18. 
  8. Newsom, Rob, and Abhinav Singh. “How Blue Light Affects Sleep.Sleep Foundation. April 12, 2022.
  9. Elhai John et al. “Problematic smartphone use: A conceptual overview and systematic review of relations with anxiety and depression psychopathology.J Affect Disord vol. 207 : 251-259. 
  10. Muehleggera, Erich, and Daniel Shoaga. “Cell Phones and Motor Vehicle Fatalities.Procedia Engineering vol. 78 ( 2014 ): 173- 177 
  11. Hurley, Katie. “Social Media and Teens: How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers’ Mental Health.Psycom. November 16, 2020.
  12. Kuss, Daria, and Mark Griffiths. “Online social networking and addiction--a review of the psychological literature.International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 8,9 : 3528-52.
  13. Artin, Alexis. “What Is A Digital Detox And What Are The Benefits?” LinkedIn. May 24, 2021.

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