It happens to many of us. We find one interesting thing online and we click. . .and down the rabbit hole we go. People find the internet and social media interesting, engaging, fun, useful, but studies show that for some, it can also be addictive. Psychologists estimate that as many as 5 to 10% of Americans meet the criteria for social media addiction. For those that are addicted to social media, it can impair their daily routine, mood, result in interpersonal problems, and more.
We’re built to respond to signals our brain sends to ensure our survival. Hormones like dopamine are secreted when we engage in certain experiences like finding food, shelter, or a romantic relationship. Nature designed our brains to feel pleasure when these experiences happen because they increase our odds of survival and of procreation. But our brains don’t distinguish between behaviors that truly ensure our survival and those that are merely satisfying in the world today.
The response our brains feel when using social media has been compared to other addictive behaviors and substances as gambling, cocaine, and some neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system. In one study presented to the Radiological Society of North America, researchers found that young people with internet and smartphone addiction demonstrated imbalances in brain chemistry compared to a control group.
Even if you aren’t addicted you may be so connected to your devices and social media that it becomes a habit too difficult to stop. Many contend the people behind social media platforms not only designed them to be widely addictive but have kept them that way even in the face of mounting evidence overuse increases anxiety and negatively impacts mental and physical well-being.
According to Nicholas Kardaras, the psychologist behind, Digital Madness, “One likely culprit is too much false social comparisons: In online posts, photos, and videos, the grass always seems greener elsewhere”
Design expert Edward Tuft, also notes, “ There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”
According to the New York Times, the average person also gets the majority of their information from digital websites. Three times the information that we consumed in the 1960’s. It’s estimated a typical user checks 40 websites a day and switches programs 36 times an hour.
In 2023 there were 47.6 billion social media users predominantly on the six most popular platforms. This translates to 59.4% of the world’s population! In 2022, half of the time spent on phones was for social media use. Data shows the average time people spend on social media is 2 1/2 hours every day. No wonder it’s such a profitable and widespread way to reach people.
Signs of addiction
Social media is powerful in more than one way. It connects us and can provide levity in a world that can sometimes feel so heavy. But the flip side is that social media companies profit from people constantly logging in. They churn ads. Content creators are paid handsomely to keep you reeled in, scrolling, liking, sharing, watching. Studies have shown that social media platforms produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible. It has been shown that the constant stream of interaction- likes and shares- cause the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction seen with drugs like Cocaine.
Some signs that somebody is experiencing social media addiction include:
- Impact to mood; using social media leads to a favorable change to emotional state
- Preoccupation with social media; inability to separate one’s routine from engaging in social media, the “need” to log in and interact on the platform. Usage impairs focus on other areas of life like work, in-person interactions, etc.
- Tolerance; time on social media increases over time as the brain craves more of the feel-good hormones that it gets from social media interactions.
- Withdrawal; can be a variety of negative shifts from emotional to physical when social media is limited or restricted.
- Conflict; interpersonal problems may increase because of usage.
- Relapse; returning to excessive usage after a period of limiting or reducing usage.
Technology and its effects on our brains, especially children
It is especially concerning when we factor in the prevalence of devices in our daily lives. When it is difficult to get through the day without checking in on some platform and leaving the house without devices feels like venturing out into the wilderness, unprotected, unconnected. For children growing up in this era, it can mean the potential to develop anxiety and behavioral issues linked to smart phone usage if not carefully managed.
Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine explored the potential harm to children’s social and emotional development. They warned that developing habits that surround excessive social media and smart phone usage can have serious consequences to social and emotional development.
Sources share that smartphone usage and internet usage increases the levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA in one region of the brain. GABA is an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter that regulates various brain functions, including anxiety. Data shows that there is a strong correlation between higher levels of depression and anxiety in people with higher internet and smart phone usage. Which raises the question- how do we protect children and young adults from developing habits that negatively impact their mental health and inhibit their ability to self-regulate?
Resources share that setting reasonable boundaries and habits surrounding social media and device usage supports social and emotional development in children and young adults. This includes setting an example with how you use your own devices. Promote a healthy balance with other facets of life, setting the tone for moderation with technology. Dangers to our youth have even prompted a bipartisan bill promoting a ban on anyone younger than 13 from using any social media platform.
How to cut back
Most of us can likely benefit from reducing social media and smart phone usage. The reality is technology is not going away- but we can learn to interact with it in healthy doses. Try these tactics to establish healthy boundaries for people of any age:
- Create obstacles: physically separating from devices can make a big difference in usage. Establish a “docking” area for devices where they can be left at certain times of the day (e.g. when you get home from work or school, dinner time, or screen break moments). For many, keeping devices at arms-length can be enough to decrease the likelihood of logging in too much.
- Turn off the noise: Not just the actual volume of the devices but modify your notifications. Platform and app developers use notifications as a way to bait us into checking what’s new, who has liked, shared, and commented on content. If you don’t see it or hear it, you don’t interact with it.
- Set a bedtime for devices: Not only is any kind of light in the evening hours harmful to sleep patterns and your overall health, in-bed social media use is associated with sleep and mood dysfunction in adults. It is reported that over 70% of people check social media before heading to bed, making this a concern relevant to most of us. To prevent overstimulation before bed, move chargers and devices away from your bedside and stop using them a couple of hours before bedtime.
- Use technology in your favor: It is counterintuitive, but technology can be a useful tool. For children, limit the amount of time certain apps can be used. Set screen-time trackers on your device to give a realistic look at usage. Sometimes seeing how many minutes (or hours!) are wasted on social media every day can be enough of a deterrent to cut back. On average, the “typical” internet user now spends almost 7 hours per day using the internet across all devices.
- Be intentional about enjoying tangible activities: There are so many other ways to get doses of feel-good hormones like exercise, socializing with friends and family, enjoying the arts, etc. These activities benefit our bodies and are satisfying and fulfilling without the downsides of social media use.
No matter your age, technology impacts all our lives. There’s no question it offers tremendous advantages, but too often companies and those wanting to subvert facts and manipulate groups know how to use them as well. Keeping us hooked on social media sites, stoking our fears, maintaining chaos, distorting facts, making it appear that everyone else looks good and has a great life- but us- is the goal. Check out how much you use your phones, computers, or tablets daily. You might be surprised. Next time you’re tempted to look at a platform, call and actually speak to someone, connect with loved ones, go out with friends, take a walk, read a book… get out into the real world instead.