August 26, 2021

The idea that social media is bad for your mental health is no longer a hot take. Everyone knows this, but we continue using social media anyway, hoping that the good balances out the bad. However, can social media use get so excessive that it becomes an addiction?

Many experts believe this to be so, and social media addiction is being treated by rehab centers in 2021. Some psychologists claim that over 5% of Americans meet the criteria for social media addiction.

The way that social media impacts the brain, with small bursts of dopamine on getting positive feedback, is similar to the way gambling impacts the brain of a gambling addict. In fact, some of the developers involved in the creation of social media platforms have admitted that pulling down on an app to refresh was designed to mimic using a slot machine.

Not everyone will see excessive social media use as an addiction, and we are not going to go into the semantics of the debate. But it is undeniable that social media sometimes resembles substances.

Here are 4 similarities between social media use and addictive substances.

1. Numbing (Distraction)

One of the most significant ways social media use is similar to substances is that we use it to numb or distract ourselves. Now, distracting ourselves from difficult feelings is sometimes necessary and even healthy. But with social media, as with addictive substances, we begin to use the distraction to numb ourselves before we get the chance to have those difficult feelings.

Many of us pick up our phones first thing in the morning and go straight to social media apps. We do the same thing the moment a TV show gets boring or the person you are watching it with pauses it for whatever reason. Then, we scroll through social media until we are exhausted enough to fall asleep.

We use social media to numb ourselves to avoid difficult thoughts or feelings, even when there is no specific trigger for them. Many people use addictive substances in the exact same way.

2. Artificial Stimulation

At other times, we use social media to do the exact opposite. Instead of numbing ourselves with content, we open up Twitter or Facebook and, whether or not we do it consciously, we look for accounts of people saying offensive things. Things which are strongly against our values or even harmful to who we are.

This makes us angry, and we gather all our emotional and intellectual resources to respond and put the person in their place. In theory, we do this to make the world a better place. But most of the time, this is a kind of stimulant. It feels good to take a righteous stand, especially when we get pats on the back for doing so.

People generally use addictive stimulants to feel “good” when they otherwise feel depressed or emotionally distressed. It is similar to distracting and numbing yourself, in that it is a different kind of response to difficult feelings.

3. Community

Many addicts say that feelings of isolation lead them to use substances. Their substance use is not just about avoiding feeling that isolation, but can also provide a sense of community. Substance users spend time with other substance users, who they can relate to as fellow sensitive beings. It is no coincidence that all addiction recovery programs stress the importance of group work and support meetings.

Social media provides a similar sense of community. Social media communities are not necessarily superficial or artificial (and neither are communities of substance users). However, they require the continual use of social media.

Anyone who is part of a Discord or Subreddit knows how quickly you lose track of a discussion if you spend an hour or two without your phone. All of a sudden, there are in-jokes you don’t understand, plans that had not even been mentioned before your break, and the conversations you were having are no longer relevant.

There are social media communities that operate in a more healthy way and are beneficial for many people. But for lots of social media users, the cost of belonging is excessive use of the platform.

4. Self-Destructiveness

How often do you open up social media even though you know you should be doing something else? It is all too common that we peruse Facebook or Instagram knowing it will cause us to have to panic to meet a deadline. Often, we decide to push the deadline off, despite the effect this may have on how our coworkers and employers see us.

Any social media use that is self-destructive should be a major warning sign. The fact that we continue to use it this way despite knowing that it is harming us is alarming. Substance use is similarly self-destructive. Alcohol and drugs have negative impacts on users, whether in the short or long term. People use them irresponsibly anyway, which is the clearest evidence that they are addictive.

You can argue about whether social media addiction falls into the same category that substance use disorders do. However, the similarities between social media and addictive substances is undeniable.

Alarmism has not stopped social media use from increasing. But on a personal level, the knowledge of the ways in which social media can be harmful and addictive can be motivation to limit your use. See what it is like to spend some time away from social media and consider what new habits you can try forming in its place.

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