It’s inherently believable that people are addicted to social media. One of the enduring, day-to-day images of the modern world is the sight of somebody surrounded by real, living breathing people but with their focus firmly fixed on a cell phone screen, “liking” statuses and sharing his or her thoughts and feelings with a crowd of invisible followers. People check Facebook upon waking and before going to bed, procrastinate through social media when they’re supposed to be working and spend inordinate amounts of time sharing, commenting and communicating online. The Fix recently spoke to four experts to get answers: is social media dependence a real problem, or does it just appear to be an addiction from the outside?
Understanding Social Media Addiction
There is little dispute among experts about the reality of something like social media addiction. We, as humans, are social animals. Part of socializing is disclosing information to others, and a study from Harvard University has shown that this self-disclosure is associated with a real, measurable biological “reward” through means of the activation of the dopamine system. Dopamine is instrumental in many addictions, from cocaine to gambling, and these dopamine-based rewards were amplified when those in the Harvard study knew their thoughts would actually be shared with somebody else. In short, the desire to share information about ourselves is biologically programmed.
The only difference social media makes is that it provides a method of self-disclosure that can be accessed within a few button presses on devices we all carry around in our pockets. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have an additional benefit to our brains because when we share, we receive feedback immediately, often from numerous people. Psychology Ph.D. holder Dr. Adi Jaffe refers to this reward as a “quick hit,” and as such, it would be expected that addiction was a possibility. Like other addictions, research has shown that social media use actually makes people feel worse, but we still continue to do it. In addition, there are withdrawal symptoms associated with social media addiction, as well as the development of tolerance and unsuccessful attempts to quit using the sites. Although it’s yet to be officially recognized, experts are broadly in agreement that social media addiction exists because it clearly shares very relevant characteristics with known addictions.
Drug Abuse And Social Media
A Los Angeles-based child psychologist, Dr. Karrie Lager, conducted a survey that found that 70 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 used social media every day, but also revealed some worrying correlations between social media use and drug use. Two-fifths of teens surveyed admitted to having seen people under the influence while browsing social media, and analysis revealed that these teens are four times more likely to use marijuana than those who haven’t seen such images. More broadly, daily social media users were found to be five times more likely to smoke, three times more likely to drink alcohol and twice as likely to smoke marijuana.
This finding can be thought of as a new, 21st century incarnation of peer pressure. Lager argues that exposure to such pictures glamorize drug use: “Teens may become desensitized and believe that since everyone else is trying them, they should too.”
Is Social Media Addiction A New Problem, Or A New Guise Of An Old One?
The most shocking recent story of social media addiction comes from the U.K., where 19-year-old Danny Bowman became apparently addicted to taking “selfies” and his inability to get the perfect snap for social media led to attempted suicide. This is an extreme case, but his eventual diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and body dysmorphic disorder raises an important question: are issues like social media addiction just outlets for older, well-known problems?
Psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy says, “I’ve encountered many young children as well as teenagers and adults who have become obsessed with social media, using it as a tool to guide their self-esteem and self-worth.” This is the crux of the issue in regard to whether social media is a distinct, unique condition. It could potentially be explained through existing issues like low self-esteem or depression, with social media merely providing a mechanism for the underlying problems to come to the surface more easily. In Danny Bowman’s case, experts argue that his OCD would have become apparent through other avenues.
Is Social Media Dependence Real?
The potential for some instances of the problem to be explained through existing issues does introduce some uncertainty, but overall it’s clear that something more is going on with social media. This isn’t to say social media is inherently “bad,” but, like food or sex, it’s something that some people can engage in without problems but in others it brings out addiction-like behaviors. The most important thing is that we don’t discount its existence, and that we remember that people struggling with social media addiction (or some other issue manifested through it) can be helped through treatment. Despite all the technical discussion of whether it’s a distinctproblem, we know that something is going wrong and we should be focused on getting treatment for those in need.