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Social media addiction symptoms, causes, and effects

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group of people on their phones

Social media addiction is a form of behavioral addiction in which a person engages in the compulsive and excessive use of social media. Problematic social media use ends up interfering with other aspects of one’s life and can affect a person in several harmful ways. Some indicators can help determine the existence of social media addiction in an individual.

The symptoms of social media addiction include restlessness if unable to check social media, increased reliance on social media as a coping mechanism, and negative impacts on one’s personal life, to name a few. Various factors contribute to the development of the condition.

The causes of social media addiction include addictiveness, stress and self-esteem, and social anxiety. These factors drive a person to continue with the excessive use of social media to clear out unpleasant feelings. Overusing social networking sites can result in many health and personal relationship problems also seen in other addictions.

The effects of social media addiction include anxiety or depression, increased isolation, decreased physical activity, low self-esteem, and poor work or school performance, among many others.

What is social media addiction?

Social media addiction is a behavioral condition that compels a person to become engrossed in social media. A social media addict will devote a significant amount of time and energy to checking social networking sites and engaging with other users on the platforms.

Problematic social media use is characterized by the inability to reduce or stop online media consumption despite negative outcomes and serious downsides.

What are the signs and symptoms of social media addiction?

Several signs indicate that someone may have an addiction to social media. The most common signs and symptoms of social media addiction are listed below.

  • Lying about the amount of time spent online: Individuals who suffer from social media addiction are often embarrassed about the significant amount of time spent on social media. As a result, people who are addicted to social media will lie to loved ones about the time spent scrolling on different platforms.
  • Relying on social media as a coping mechanism: A person may increasingly use social media to cope with problems or negative feelings such as boredom, social anxiety, stress, or loneliness.
  • Feeling restless when unable to check social media: Individuals who struggle with social media addiction may become restless or troubled when unable to use social media. A person may be aware of the negative feelings that being unable to access social media can cause, but may often feel like the situation is uncontrollable.
  • Neglecting school- or work-related responsibilities: As social media continues to consume a big chunk of a person’s time and energy, school- or work-related responsibilities may be neglected.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family: Personal relationships may suffer as a social media addict prefers to spend more time in the virtual world. A person may withdraw from family and friends, having difficulty staying in the moment as one’s full attention is given to social media.

What are the causes of social media addiction?

Woman by a lake looking at her phone

Social media addiction is caused by many contributing factors. The most common causes of social media addiction are listed below.

  • Addictiveness:
    The addictive potential of social media can be largely attributed to the novelty that different social media sites offer. Social networking apps come up with new ideas to have people as returning visitors to the platform all the time. This makes individuals more vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption of online media.
  • Stress and self-esteem:
    Social media allows users to selectively showcase life by only selecting the finest moments. It can give a false impression that people have to keep up and try harder to live a more desirable life. This can cause stress and lower self-esteem to an individual by putting unnecessary pressure on oneself to do better in life.
  • Social anxiety:
    An inability to establish and maintain real-life relationships can make a person turn to social media where connections are made easier. Someone who suffers from social anxiety may prefer to spend time in the virtual world as engaging does not require real-life interactions.

What are the effects of social media addiction?

Overconsumption of social media can have negative repercussions. The effects of social media addiction are listed below.

  • Anxiety and depression: The lack of real and deeper connection with other people offline can cause depressive symptoms. The superficial connections established in social media tend to be less emotionally satisfying. As a result, people who are addicted to social media do not get the benefits of healthy social interaction.
  • Increased isolation: There is still an ongoing debate about whether perceived social isolation causes people to turn to social media or excessive users develop feelings of isolation. Either way, evidence exists that spending less time interacting face to face can cause negative mood states like social isolation.
  • Decreased physical activity: Spending a lot of time on the phone means someone has less time for physical activities that can help generate a sense of accomplishment. Although an interaction in social media can make someone feel good, this effect is more temporary and less satisfying.
  • Low self-esteem: Loss of self-esteem can stem from comparing oneself with seemingly perfect images of people posted online. As a result, people suffering from social media addiction have reported worries about body image, among others.
  • Poor work or school performance: One of the biggest signs that social media use is becoming a problem is when it starts negatively affecting one’s life. Social media addiction can distract students from academic work. Similarly, working professionals may lose focus on work-related responsibilities and may miss deadlines for important projects.

Why is social media addictive?

Social media is addictive because it has a significant effect on the brain, a mechanism also seen in substance use disorders. Social media affects human psychology by activating the reward centers in the brain.

This process creates pleasurable feelings that can boost a person’s mood when checking social media. For instance, a person with an Instagram addiction can get feelings of pleasure in the form of likes or comments when sharing a piece of content.

This reward circuitry puts individuals at risk of compulsive behaviors around social media. When a person reencounters a trigger associated with the pleasurable feeling, that person is more likely to engage once more in the addictive behavior, unable to resist the thought of missing something important online.

How social media affects the brain?

Social media affects the brain by activating its reward circuitry and releasing dopamine in the process. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and want.

Being on social media increases dopamine signals in the brain. The brain then identifies social media use as a rewarding experience that a person does for survival and therefore needs to be repeated. This mechanism of action may explain why is social media addictive for some people.

Rewards in social media come in the form of positive feedback from other users. Since these rewards increase the secretion of the feel-good hormone dopamine, people tend to look forward to positive feelings and will constantly check social media as a result.

What are the types of social media addiction?

people sitting next to each other looking at their phones

People may develop an addiction to certain activities carried out on social media. The five types of social media addiction are listed below.

  • Facebook addiction: Described as the excessive and compulsive use of Facebook to boost one’s mood despite negative consequences. Problematic Facebook use interferes with a person’s life on a daily basis.
  • Nomophobia: A shortened form of “no mobile phone phobia,” it describes a condition in which people develop fear and anxiety when left without a mobile device. Having an uncharged phone or being without cellular service can cause panic attacks in some people who suffer from the disorder.
  • Instant messaging: The compulsive need for online interactions through instant messaging services, including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The disorder involves a preoccupation with instant messaging and may cause a person to check their phone from time to time to see new messages or texts.
  • Microblogging: Refers to the excessive use of microblogs, a form of traditional blogging that involves short pieces of content that can be in the form of audio, text, or video. One example of a popular microblogging site is Twitter.
  • Online dating: The problematic use of online dating sites and applications. People may prefer forming virtual relationships over mobile dating applications, leading to isolation from family or friends and damage to personal relationships.

What are the downsides of social media addiction?

Overusing social media has several drawbacks. The downsides of social media addiction are listed below.

  • Lack of empathy:
    A person who struggles with social media addiction often chooses to communicate through email, messaging, or social media rather than face-to-face. The lack of face-to-face communication can impede a person’s empathy as feeling empathy is best learned through social situations.
  • Difficulty sleeping:
    Excessive use of social media around bedtime can negatively affect sleep quality. The blue light emitted from mobile phones can interfere with the body’s ability to prepare for sleep.
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO):
    Social media creates deep envy of the highlights of other people’s lives. This can result in feelings of missing out on something important that others may have at the moment. Several social media addiction facts indicate that FOMO is heavily linked to greater social media usage.
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed:
    As a person devotes a large chunk of time to social media, there is very little time left to do other activities that once brought enjoyment.
  • Conflict in real-life relationships:
    Social media can negatively affect the quality and expectations that a person has of real-life relationships. Leaning too much on alternative modes of communication such as social media sites creates a gap in real-life communication and tends to weaken relationships.

How do you know if you have a social media addiction?

A person can suspect having social media addiction if they spend increasing amounts of time and energy on social media. Another major indicator of problematic social media use is its negative impact on an individual’s life and personal relationships.

Because social media is now the priority in an addict’s life, they may start neglecting responsibilities and ignoring real-life relationships to engage with social media users. This interference in daily life functioning ultimately leads to a poorer quality of life.

How can you decrease social media use?

Several actionable ways exist to conquer social media addiction. The ways on how to decrease social media use are listed below.

  • Move apps away from the home screen and into one folder: Keeping social media apps away from the home screen helps tame the temptation to open apps first thing when using the phone.
  • Track online time: Implementing time limits on social media use can help one gain awareness of the impacts that online media has on a person’s life. Being aware of where a large chunk of one’s time is going helps improve mindfulness.
  • Turn off notifications for social media accounts: Turning off notifications for specific apps helps improve overall productivity and reduce distractions. This also helps a person become more present for others.
  • Put the phone down before bedtime: Nighttime use of the phone can interrupt a person’s sleep through the blue light emitted from electronics. Blue light has stimulating effects on the brain which keeps one awake and disrupts sleep patterns.
  • Rediscover offline life: Prioritize real-life connections by finding new things to do with family or friends. Doing something that will give a much-needed break from the screen can help one rediscover the benefits of offline life.
  • Do a digital detox: One may also try doing a digital detox for a few days until there is a noticeable decrease in social media addiction symptoms. With proactive actions and help from a professional, one may safely engage in a digital detox from social media platforms.

How can social media affect mental health?

sad woman on her phone

Social media can affect mental health by causing anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other mental health challenges. Several studies have found an association between excessive social media use and certain mental health conditions.

Social media platforms offer individuals a place where there is an endless stream of opportunities for comparisons and feedback. This makes a person search for validation on social media, which the person sees as a substitute for a deep connection that can effectively be developed in real-life situations.

Problematic social media use can increase one’s risk of being bullied online or becoming a cyberbully. Through different platforms, people can spread malicious rumors and hurtful messages that can be emotionally scarring. Oftentimes, cyberbullies can cause emotional damage while remaining anonymous.

The great impact that social media platforms have on a person’s mental health can provide a clue as to exactly what is social media addiction and how serious its repercussions can be. Cyberbullying victims are often left with lasting emotional trauma, self-injurious behavior, and even suicidal thoughts.

What are the positive aspects of social media?

The positive aspects of social media include staying connected with family and friends across the world, connecting with like-minded people, and raising awareness about an important cause, to name a few.

The pros of social media are often centered on its ability to connect people and build relationships. Despite its downsides, mindful use of social media can be beneficial for many and may help people avoid several social media addiction effects.

Building a healthy relationship with social media can allow individuals to use the platform to educate, inspire, foster empathy, and deepen relationships.

What are the negative aspects of social media?

The negative aspects of social media include the risk for addiction, depression and anxiety, feelings of inadequacy about one’s life or appearance, sleep disturbances, and fear of missing out (FOMO), among many others.

All forms of social media addictions can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health. It is widely known that people who are addicted to social media also often deal with other mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

The highlights of a person’s life posted on social media can also cause unrealistic expectations of life, leading someone to feel inadequate in many ways. Similarly, the facade seen in online platforms creates an anxious feeling that someone is missing out on something exciting or interesting that may already be happening to someone else.

Lastly, overusing social media hurts one’s sleep quality. This can result in decreased productivity and poor concentration.

What are the treatments for social media addiction?

People who are addicted to social media may benefit from different treatment programs. The most successful treatments for social media addiction are listed below.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT):
    One of the most common treatments for problematic social media usage. CBT is a problem-solving approach to social media addiction that aims to teach people methods of managing addictive behaviors that lead to compulsive social media use.
  • Behavioral activation:
    Particularly effective if another mental health condition occurs alongside social media addiction. Behavioral activation encourages individuals to create a sense of meaning, increase pleasurable feelings, and replace unhelpful behaviors.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT):
    Another way of treating social media addiction that focuses on changing a person’s behavior and encouraging addicts to seek supportive environments that can make the journey to sobriety easier.
  • Family therapy:
    An ideal treatment option for someone whose social media obsession has started to affect the rest of the family. Family therapy can help other family members empathize with what the addict is going through.

The treatments for social media addiction are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), behavioral activation, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and family therapy.