What Is Social Media Addiction? Social media addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas. Checking and scrolling through social media has become an increasingly popular activity over the last decade. Although the majority of peoples’ use of social media is non-problematic, there is a small percentage of users that become addicted to social networking sites and engage in excessive or compulsive use. In fact, psychologists estimate that as many as 5 to 10% of Americans meet the criteria for social media addiction today.

Addictive social media use will look much like that of any other substance use disorder, including mood modification (i.e., engagement in social media leads to a favorable change in emotional states), salience (i.e., behavioral, cognitive, and emotional preoccupation with social media), tolerance (i.e., ever increasing use of social media over time), withdrawal symptoms (i.e., experiencing unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms when social media use is restricted or stopped), conflict (i.e., interpersonal problems ensue because of social media usage), and relapse (i.e., addicted individuals quickly revert back to their excessive social media usage after an abstinence period). The phenomena of social media addiction can largely be contributed to the dopamine-inducing social environments that social networking sites provide. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible. Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites have affected the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine. In fact, neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system.

How Social Media Affects the BrainDue to the effect that it has on the brain, social media is addictive both physically and psychologically. According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations. When someone experiences something rewarding, or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement. This is observable in social media usage; when an individual gets a notification, such as a like or mention, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways, causing him or her to feel pleasure. Social media provides an endless amount of immediate rewards in the form of attention from others for relatively minimal effort. Therefore, the brain rewires itself through this positive reinforcement, making people desire likes, retweets, and emoticons. Another perpetuating factor of social media addiction is the fact that the reward centers of the brain are most active when people are talking about themselves. In real life, it’s estimated that people talk about themselves around 30 to 40% of the time; however, social media is all about showing off one’s life and accomplishments, so people talk about themselves a staggering 80% of the time. When a person posts a picture and gets positive social feedback, it stimulates the brain to release dopamine, which again rewards that behavior and perpetuates the social media habit.

Social media use becomes problematic when someone views social networking sites as an important coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. For these people, social media use provides continuous rewards that they’re not receiving in real life, and end up engaging in the activity more and more. This continuous use eventually leads to multiple interpersonal problems, such as ignoring real life relationships, work or school responsibilities, and physical health, which may then exacerbate an individual’s undesirable moods. This then causes people to engage in the social networking behavior even more as a way of relieving dysphoric mood states. Consequently, when social network users repeat this cyclical pattern of relieving undesirable moods with social media use, the level of psychological dependency on social media increases.                                                                                                                                                  

Recognizing a Social Media Addiction. Although many people habitually use social media, very few are genuinely addicted. If you’re worried that someone may be at risk of developing an addiction to social media, ask yourself these six questions:

  • Does he/she spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
  • Does he/she feel urges to use social media more and more?
  • Does he/she use social media to forget about personal problems?
  • Does he/she often try to reduce use of social media without success?
  • Does he/she become restless or troubled if unable to use social media?
  • Does he/she use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on his/her job or studies?
  • If you answered “yes” to a more than three of these questions, then you may have or be developing a social media addiction.

As a precaution, that person should engage in a digital detox; a period of time during which someone significantly reduces the time spent or abstains from using electronic devices such a smartphones or computers. This can include simple steps, such as turning off sound notifications and only checking social media sites once an hour. Other changes can include having periods in the day where there is self-imposed non-screen time, such as during meal times, or leaving the phone in a separate room at night so as not to disturb sleep. This allows for a restored focus on social interaction in the physical world and reduces dependency on networking sites.

“A magnitude of research exists to suggest that social media is a growing public health problem, particularly with teens and young adults. Data suggests that social media use has greatly impacted suicide and non-fatal self-harm rates, particularly in young females. The CDC reports that, as social media use has grown since 2010-11, non-fatal self-harm hospitalizations for girls ages 15-19 has increased by 62%, while also escalating by a staggering 189% in younger girls ages 10-14, which is nearly triple what it was before 2010. The same pattern applies to suicide rates in young girls with a 70% increase in the older girls’ age group and 151% in the younger girls’ age group.”

Helping Your Teen Explore a Healthy Relationship with Social Media. Teens in this age have an intricate network of information and social connection at their disposal, adding complexity to their lives that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. Many parents feel alienated by their adolescent’s social media habits. It’s difficult to ask your kid about their day and hear a short “fine” or “good”. Maybe their mouths are moving, but their eyes are glued to a screen. What do we do when we have no idea what our kids are doing on their devices for hours every day? As adults, the willpower to sign off can be difficult- particularly in times where our friends are busy (or quarantining!) and social media provides a manageable and safe way to connect. And for our children, possessing the self-control to log off can be more challenging, even problematic.

What’s your role as a parent when your teen’s online so often? Like us, teens use social media to connect with their peers. But sometimes, a young person’s relationship with their phone can take an unhealthy, even dangerous turn. In the face of increasingly widespread screen addiction, one question that parents repeatedly ask us is, “what do I do about my teen’s use of social media?” The clinical team at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness treats this issue (along with many more), and in this post, we’ll provide insight to the harms and benefits of social media on teens along with some tips for helping them relate to their screens in a healthy way.

Is social media good or bad for our kids? The answer is that it can be both. Most teens use social media. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 97% of them use a social media platform, such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat and that 45% are online almost constantly. With this frequency of use comes many different effects and impacts of social media on young people:

The Benefits - In some ways, teens use social media adaptively. Social media can help them discover and create their identity, connect with friends, explore their creative side, and find support from others.Teens often use social media for self-expression, exposure to other cultures and world events, and education about self-development and health. Sometimes, they even avoid depression by finding distracting, humorous content, and online peers who understand and empathize with them. Social media can provide a safe place for teens to express themselves when they don’t feel like they have one at home or in their friend group.

The Harms - Social media use can also negatively impact teens. It can distract them, disrupt their sleep, expose them to unrealistic expectations, diminish their self-esteem, and even generate cyber-bullying.

Addictive Properties: Teens often have weaker self-restraint around addictive activities- particularly when the behaviors fulfill their needs for love and belonging, freedom, and control. The adverse consequences of social media use could likely be tied to their frequency of and dependency upon screen time: many young people report feeling dependent upon their devices. Like drugs or video games, social media is one more thing that our teens might have difficulty using in moderation. Social media use can sometimes fall into the category of addictive activities. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens. A 2019 U.S. study by Michael B. Robb, Ph.D., found that among teens, over 89% own a smartphone, 39% report feeling “addicted to their phones.” The longer teens are logged in, the higher the likelihood that they: - 1. Develop poor self-esteem.  2. Experience sleep disruptions.  3. Experience anxiety and depression.  4. Inflict self-harm or suicide.  5. Participate in (or become a victim of) bullying and sharing personal information

Sleep Disruptions: Social media doesn’t directly harm teens, but it can distract them from engaging in healthy behaviors such as going to sleep at the appropriate time (and remaining asleep through the night). The Robb study discovered that 68% of American teens keep their phone in their bed or within reach during the night and over 35% of children woke up during the night to check their mobile device, including nearly half of children (48%) who also reported that they felt addicted to their mobile device. Ruthann Richter from the Stanford Medical School reports that “sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer myriad negative consequences” such as poor concentration, low grades, driving incidents, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts.

Anxiety and Depression: In addition to addictive properties, some studies have revealed links between increased social media use and anxiety or depression symptoms. In 2016, the results of a study of more than 450 teenagers suggested that higher social media use, emotional investment in social media, and nighttime social media use were related to poorer sleep and increased anxiety and depression. A 2015 study suggested that depressive symptoms were more common when teens sought out social comparison and feedback through social media, and in 2013, a study found that older teens who passively used social media (i.e. simply viewing others’ photos) reported declines in life satisfaction. Interestingly, kids who used social media to connect or interact with others and post their own content didn’t experience those declines.

Self Harm and Suicide: Data suggests that social media use has greatly impacted suicide and non-fatal self-harm rates, particularly in young females. The CDC reports that, as social media use has grown since 2010-11, non-fatal self-harm hospitalizations for girls ages 15-19 has increased by 62%, while also escalating by a staggering 189% in younger girls ages 10-14, which is nearly triple what it was before 2010. The same pattern applies to suicide rates in young girls with a 70% increase in the older girls’ age group and 151% in the younger girls’ age group. Harvard researcher and psychology professor Michael Nock, Ph.D., suggests that bullying is one of many causes of self-harm that teens who are experiencing social pressures or who are desperate to stop being picked on may use self-harm as a cry for help.

Bullying: The high rates of cyberbullying reported could correlate to increased self-harm in teens. A 2018 Pew Research study found a majority of teens have experienced cyberbullying. The majority of these teens (42%) encountered name-calling online or through text, while about a third (32%) of teens say that they’ve had a false rumor spread about them. A smaller percentage (21%) of teens have had someone other than their guardian consistently ask where they are, who they’re with, and what they’re doing and 16% of teens have been victims of physical threats online. The same Pew study found that 90% of teens believe that cyberbullying is an issue for their peer group while 63% of those teens believe that it’s a “major problem”. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that: “Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, social, emotional, academic, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullies are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood.” The Department also reports that victims of bullying experience health complaints and decreased academic achievement, as they are “more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.”

Sharing Personal Information: Teens can be impulsive by nature. This leads experts to suggest that teens who post on social media are at risk of sharing private or intimate photos and stories. A 2017 study by Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society found that many teenagers extensively share personal information online - 91% post photos of themselves, 71% post their school name, 53 % post email address and, 20% post their cell phone number. The fallout of this behavior can take different routes ranging from bullying to harassment or blackmail. Such consequences are often not considered by teens that aren’t educated about the effects of posting highly personal information. A magnitude of research exists to suggest that social media is a growing public health problem, particularly with teens and young adults. 

Helping your teen use social media responsibly. The following are some actions you can take to help your teen use social media in a responsible and healthy way. Set the tone by role modeling healthy social media habits: Be a role model by following the same rules that your family has set around screen time! Don’t use your phone during quality time such as meals, conversations, and while driving. Set practical expectations and limits: Have a conversation with your teen about when it’s appropriate to use social media and how to avoid letting it interfere with sleep, activities, meals, and homework. Help your teen devise a screen-free bedtime routine. Monitor accounts: Inform your teen that you’ll be checking their social media accounts once a week or more- and follow through. Talk about online etiquette: Have a conversation with your teen about what they think is and isn’t ok to do on social media. Discuss gossiping, bullying, and sharing personal or intimate information. Plan face-to-face activities with friends: Spending in-person time with peers can help your developing teen to establish how valuable real-life activities are and create stronger habits around making a point of putting down their phone and having quality interactions with others. Seek outside help: Sometimes, the actions listed above don’t seem to work. If you find yourself struggling to help your teen moderate their social media use, you’re not alone. It can be helpful to involve a licensed professional to assist you with implementing long-lasting change.

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