Though not an officially recognized diagnosable condition, the term “social media addiction” refers to when someone is incessantly and compulsively preoccupied with social media. At its most fundamental level, social media feeds into our basic need to feel loved and accepted. When something feeds our basic needs, its addiction potential skyrockets. With it, we feel fulfilled. Without it, we may feel depressed or anxious.
What Is Social Media Addiction?
Similar to other forms of addiction, people with a social media addiction feel an incessant need to continue engaging with social media despite the consequences. Such consequences may ultimately cost one a marriage, child, friend, job opportunity, or overall reputation. There may also be legal ramifications.
Facebook is the number one social media platform with nearly 2.895 billion users.1 With so many users, it presents an opportunity to connect with more people and in more ways than other platforms. Most anything that people like about social media is available in some variety on Facebook. The immediate gratification of a ”like,” “love,” “care,” and other quick responses, activates the reward pathway, which fills us with the “feel good” neurotransmitters. When relied upon as a primary means of socializing, people may find themselves attempting to adhere to impractical, ideal standards that others present through a façade. Accordingly, a skewed perception of reality may leave users confused, angry, scared, and filled with any other combination of negative emotions.
Instagram is the second most widely used platform after Facebook.2 With the reliance on photos, it is much more tempting for users to alter their appearance—using filters and getting that perfect, desirable angle in their selfie. Sharing photos can be quick, easy, and fun for many users. For others, it becomes a way of life. Though not all “influencers” are addicted to Instagram, the behaviors necessary to get to that point resemble those that lead to addiction. This may involve compulsively thinking about and posting pictures, keeping up with what everyone else is sharing, distancing themself from life obligations and activities previously enjoyed, and becoming emotionally invested to the point of detriment.
Why Is Social Media Addictive?
Social media affects mental health through the reward (or pleasure) pathway in the brain.3 When we perceive something with excitement, we activate dopamine production in the brain, which triggers serotonin. This cascade of neurotransmitters is what creates the euphoric rush upon receiving positive feedback.3
There is evidence to support benefits for the brain when social media is used in moderation. Research has found a connection between a large social media network and increased grey matter density.4 Grey matter density contributes toward the ability to perform tasks.4 Accordingly, the ability to recognize faces and heightened memory is generally found for those with larger social media networks.4,5
On the other hand, there are negative effects that may ultimately become substantial if gone unchecked. Increased desire to be on social media and experience of withdrawal when not engaged creates stress on the body. As anxiety increases, so does cortisol, which overtime becomes toxic in your immune system.
Another concern is that it reduces attention span.5 With so many options of what to view, write, or engage with, it can become increasingly challenging to remain focused. For those who feel a responsibility to be aware of what is going on in the world or are particularly drawn to bad news, the potential for doomscrolling also increases.
Social Media Addiction in Teens
Teens are in a unique stage of development in which they are forming their own identities. With social media being a popular form of self-expression and identity formation, teens are particularly susceptible to excessive use of social media. Attention-seeking behavior is a common occurrence here as well.
Teenagers are spending an average of three hours a day on social media, and teens with problematic use may easily spend double to triple that amount of time.6 When teens spend five hours or more on social media sites per day, they are twice as likely to show depressive symptoms than their peers.6 Despite this research, it is important to proceed with caution, as correlation does not mean causation—it is also possible that teens with mental health struggles are using more social media in order to ease their suffering and feel more connected with those who also have mental health issues. In either case, intervention is appropriate.
The Impact of Social Media Addiction
An immediate consequence of excessive social media use is that it takes away from time spent elsewhere. This includes time with family and friends, and engaging in hobbies and exercise. It may also begin getting in the way of important life obligations and productivity. As this happens, it is likely that others will begin noticing, and relationships will become compromised.
Excessive social media use may also sway your ability to independently make decisions.6,7 Since peer pressure in face-to-face situations has been known to have this effect as well, it’s no surprise that social media can have the same impact. People either begin questioning themselves or want to just go with the flow when the majority believes something different. Although children and teenagers are generally more likely to be swayed by peer pressure, this happens with adults as well.
Social media platforms also intentionally use advertising strategies specific to someone’s demographics and desires to update news feeds with specific information enticing to that individual. Although this helps fund the platform, it also makes it harder for the individual to lessen or abstain from engagement.
Health Risks of Social Media Addiction
Possible health risks and concerns of excessive social media use include:4,5,6,7
- Problems concentrating
- Poor performance at work or school
- Problems within close interpersonal relationships
- Eating less
- Ruminating negative thoughts
- Inflated self-image
- Less physical activity
- Weight gain
- Spending money
- Increased blood pressure/hypertension
- Emotional instability
- Decreased sleep
How to Tell If You’re Addicted to Social Media
Since social media is so easily accessible, it’s easy to develop a problem. When you notice that your mood is directly related to your social media use, or that your sleep or relationships are being damaged by your use, that’s a sign that it’s time to get some help.
Some general signs of a social media addiction include:8
- Engagement in social media changes your mood – i.e. you feel happier when you’re on social media
- You have a behavioral, cognitive, and emotional preoccupation with social media
- You keep increasing your use of social media over time
- You experience unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms when social media use is restricted or stopped
- You have interpersonal problems due to your social media usage
- You quickly revert back to excessive social media usage after you try to take a break
- As the number of symptoms and their severity increases, the more likely you have a problem with social media use.
Signs of Social Media Addiction in Teens
Adolescence is a prime period of social development. Throughout this time, teens are beginning to further form their identities by considering who they are, what peer groups they belong to, and considering their future direction. It is confusing enough as it is but becomes even more complicated with the onset of social media addiction. Though each adolescent’s experience will differ, there are common signs that may indicate a problem.
Some signs that may indicate your teen has social media addiction include:
- Spending excessive time on social media
- Continually thinking about what is happening on social media while not online
- Engaging in social media in secrecy or isolating themself
- Withdrawing from people, places, and things previously enjoyed
- Struggling with performance at school and/or work; refusing to complete household chores
- Becoming angry or acting out when social media use is limited or restricted
- Having more interest socializing online than in-person
- Struggling to achieve a healthy sleep, diet, and exercise routine
- Basing their self-concept off that of others on social media
- Believing misinformation shared on social media to be true regardless of facts provided to the contrary
- Creating fake social media accounts to become or portray someone else
- Hiding social media accounts from parents/guardians
- Not finding any joy in the day unless checking into social media
- Having to check into social media at every moment regardless of what they’re doing
- Continuing use despite having a desire or making continued attempts to stop
- Exacerbation of another mental health and/or addictive disorder
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
Causes & Triggers of Excessive Social Media Use
The progression into excessive social media use generally begins with some type of underlying issue. It is then allowed to really take hold when you have unlimited access to the Internet. The more significant the problem and more time you have to spend on social media, the greater likelihood of developing problematic use.
Common causes and triggers of social media use include:
- Low self-esteem
- Inflated self-esteem
- Seeking social support during a difficult time
- Attention-seeking thoughts and behaviors
- The need to compete
- The need to be the center of attention
- Struggles with interpersonal skills in everyday life
- An intention to keep watch on everyone else
- Seeking pleasure in looking down on others to feel better about oneself
- Lack of close friends and peer groups
- Mental illness and/or substance use disorder
How to Stop Social Media Addiction
If you’re trying to stop or limit your time on social media, here are four tips:
1. Be Strict About Limiting Your Time
First and foremost, you should restrict your time on social media. In the very beginning it is best to abstain altogether. Once the timing is appropriate, social media may be used but in extremely limited quantities. A time frame of 15 minutes is appropriate to avoid returning to a problem.9 Using a timer, social media limiting app, or someone to monitor your use is recommended at this point.
2. Stick to One App
Limiting to one social media app rather than subscribing to many may also help here. If issues arise, then it is important to immediately abstain from social media use again.
3. Develop a Strong Support Network
You should also build reinforcements. Having a support network including loved ones, family, friends, a therapist, and a support group is ideal. For those who rely on social media to build their networks, it is advantageous to rely on alternative means of contact like phone calls, text messages, emails, snail mail, and meeting in person.
4. Have Healthy Off-Line Habits
Participating in offline hobbies that promote health and wellness are ideal.10 Engaging in regular positive self-talk will increase self-esteem and reduce the need to receive attention through social media.
Social Media Addiction Treatment
Social media addiction is treatable with therapy and behavior modification. Note that due to social media addiction not yet being formally recognized as a diagnosable condition, many insurance companies and other managed care organizations do not offer reimbursement. Consequently, treatment specific to this condition may require patients to pay out of pocket.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT continues to remain one of the top preferred treatment methods. The therapist and patient work together to correct faulty beliefs, rid negative thoughts, and think before reacting. By doing this, you stand a much better chance of moving onward and fighting the urge to log in.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is like CBT but includes the additional component of mindfulness. By being mindful of your environment as well as what you’re thinking and doing, you can work through triggers and other challenges. DBT also includes a group component and weekly phone sessions with the therapist on top of outpatient visits.
- Inpatient treatment: Although it is likely that you may work through social media addiction by attending outpatient therapy and support groups, more severe cases may require residential treatment. In the case of residential treatment, patients will be removed from their everyday environment while having restricted access to the Internet.
The intended treatment outcome and timeline for working toward recovery is highly dependent upon your motivation to change. If you fully engage in treatment while utilizing appropriate coping skills, changing your environment, and abstaining from unhealthy social media use, then the treatment outcome is quite favorable.8
How to Get Help for Problematic Social Media Use
An online therapist directory is a great place to review multiple therapists to find someone with the expertise you’re looking for. Carefully review the therapists’ profiles, then once you have found several potential matches, call each one and ask whatever questions you find appropriate.
You might want to ask questions like:
- Do you take my insurance, or do I have to pay out of pocket?
- Have you worked with others who have had social media problems?
- What are the general treatment outcomes and timeline for individuals coming in with this condition?
- Are there any additional support groups or resources I should consider to supplement counseling services?
From there, schedule an appointment and assess the fit. If there seems to be a mismatch after multiple sessions, then proceed to the next therapist on your list. While it is not recommended to continually switch therapists upon engaging in treatment, the match is also critical and will impact treatment outcomes.
How to Get Help for a Loved One
Getting help for a loved one requires a similar procedure but should be done collaboratively. It will require a serious conversation in which you tactfully state your concerns and extend your support. The match among the type of treatment, therapist, and your loved one is critical, so it is imperative that your loved one has a say. If desired, ride along together to the first appointment (or the first several). It may even be appropriate, when the timing is right, to attend a session together, so you can learn how to offer even more support.
How to Get Help for a Teen
Although it is recommended to give your teen a say regarding treatment, assuming the teen is a minor, the parent/guardian has authority to make the final decision. Beyond treatment, it is imperative that parents/guardians work collaboratively with the teen every step of the way. This includes actively participating in treatment, maintaining boundaries in the home, talking through problems, and leading by example. If your teen’s behavior is not monitored at home, then it is likely that they’ll return to their problematic use.
Practical Ways to Monitor Social Media Use
Whether you currently have a problem with social media use, or you had one formerly, it is important to monitor how much time you’re spending online. If not careful, anyone with regular access to the internet could find that they have a problem at any time.
Check In With Yourself Frequently
Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself about your social media use:
- How much time do I spend on social media every day?
- Have I noticed an increase in use?
- Are others making comments about my use?
- Has my use led toward negative emotions or other consequences?
- Do I tend to stay on social media even when I really don’t want to?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
By being mindful of use and checking in regularly, you can decipher whether an adjustment needs to be made. Then, the important thing is to adjust as necessary.
Take a Conscious Break
When social media use becomes toxic it is important to take a break. Referred to as a “digital detox,” this is when people distance themselves from electronic devices to focus on real-life interactions without any distractions.11 This time-out not only reduces negative symptoms associated with excessive social media use, but also allows one to reconnect with those around you.
Do an Audit of Your Social Media Use
Something as simple as a daily journal auditing social media use can go a long way. Within this journal you may account for time spent on social media, individuals contacted, and feelings associated with use that day. Recognizing and monitoring your usage may help you recognize issues before they start, or stop them before they become worse.
Social Media Use Statistics
Given that social media addiction is a relatively new phenomenon, long-term studies are limited. It is because of this limited research that social media addiction has yet to be formally recognized. What we have been able to gather, however, is that increased time spent on social media increases the likelihood of developing a problem.
Here are several statistics from the 2021 Pew Research study on social media use:2
- 72% of US adults say they use at least one social media site
- 84% of US adults 18-29 use social media
- 81% of US adults 30-49 use social media
- 73% of US adults 50-64 use social media
- Facebook is the most commonly used social media site at 69% of adults using it followed by Instagram (40%), Pinterest (31%), LinkedIn (28%), Snapchat (25%), and Twitter (23%)
- Among US adults who say they use Facebook, 70% use it daily
- Among US adults who say they use Instagram, 59% use it daily
- As the numbers indicate, there is a strong correlation between active users and daily use. The more one uses social media, the greater the risk of forming an addiction.