If I say the word ‘addiction’, what kind of words immediately come to mind? Drugs, alcohol, or perhaps gambling? You may be surprised to learn of a new kind of addiction emerging – social media addiction. While it is not yet a formal clinical diagnosis, the ubiquity of social media and its enormous influence on our everyday lives is evident – both positive and negative. Facebook recently hit 2 billion monthly active users, making it the largest social app in terms of logged-in users, over YouTube’s 1.5 billion, Instagram’s 700 million and Twitter’s 328 million.
As a result, the mental health community has become progressively concerned about the ramifications of digital technology on our lives. It can fuel Internet addiction, with the damage lying in a person’s change in behaviour. An individual may spend increasing amounts of time online to generate the same pleasurable effect as before, taking over the majority of their attention and time.
A study from Nottingham Trent University revealed typical addictive behaviour including neglect of personal life, escapism, and mood-modifying experiences appeared to be present in some people who used social media networks excessively. Furthermore, Adam Alter from New York University explains the addictiveness of social media as similar to cigarettes and alcohol, with features such as ‘retweets’ and ‘likes’ producing dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure. However, a lack of these stimulates negative feelings of anger, depression and anxiety.
It’s similar to the psychological trick of clickbait articles, with titles giving you some information but not enough to quench your curiosity – notifications display a number, enticing you to click on them.
This is very applicable to a friend I know who was addicted to Tumblr, a microblogging and social networking site, in her teenage years. Originally, she used the site occasionally to post and ‘reblog’ aesthetically pleasing photos. However, as her popularity and followers increasingly grew, from thousands into tens of thousands, it began to consume her, blurring the distinctions between her online and virtual life. She felt like she was a new person online: someone who was self-assured, outspoken and attention-worthy. This was a stark contrast to the girl sitting behind the screen, her days spent isolated in bed, with only a few words spoken in real life. Even in social settings with family or friends, her mind wouldn’t be one hundred per cent there. If she was not already on her phone scrolling through her Tumblr feed, she would be thinking about when she could leave so she could go on Tumblr, alone in the peace and quiet of her room.
As her online popularity continue to grow, pressure increased when uploading new photos, with hours spent editing and perfecting them. Yet, if the reblogs she received weren’t up to the usual standard, feelings of anxiety and tension immediately emerged. Ultimately, the unsustainable use of this social platform harmed her in the long-run.
It dwindled her confidence, increased cravings for self-validation, and caused her to drift from real life friends, as her online persona began to overtake her. This experience highlights the detrimental effects of excessive and unhealthy social media use, further exacerbated by the displays of only the most polished, censored versions of people’s lives.
By delving into the trap of excessive social media use, conflicting feelings that are subsequently experienced are further explored in Donna Freita’s book The Happiness Effect, where a large-scale study of university students revealed their outlooks of social media being a combination of pleasure and pain, freedom, and imprisonment. The sociality that emerges from digital technology may lead individuals into a trap that they yearn to escape from, but fail to do so.
It’s evident social media addiction has a real potential to damage your mental health and degrade your quality of life. While this problem is gradually gaining more awareness, there are still many questions needing to be answered. How can we classify this addiction as a mental disorder? Can we treat it in the same way as other illnesses, using drugs or psychotherapy? Clearly, more in-depth research needs to be undertaken on social media addiction, an increasingly prevalent issue in this day and age.