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Is Social Media Dependence a Mental Health Issue?

Selfie addiction or the inability to stop fishing for likes on Facebook may seem ridiculous, but could they actually be the new addictions of the 21st century?

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By Emma Stein

04/24/14

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With the recent traumatic news of Danny Bowman, the 19-year-old UK resident who attempted suicide after being obsessed with taking ‘selfies,’ the general public has vocalized strong opinions on both sides of the social media debate. It’s no question that we are developing a dependence on the technological advance that unifies billions of people, but are we addicted? The Fix spoke with four different leaders in the field to uncover the growing obsession with status updates, and what this means for our psychological well-being. 

“In moderation, social media can be a great way for teens to connect to others, to relate to their peers, and to express themselves,” Dr. Karrie Lager, a child psychologist practicing in Los Angeles, says. “However, excessive internet use can have serious negative consequences,” she explains in response to a survey published by CASA Columbia. The survey explores the relationship between teenagers, social media use, and drug abuse. They found that 70% of teenagers age 12-17 spend time on a social media site in a typical day, which amounts to 17 million teenage users. Those that interact via social media on a daily basis are five times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana. 40% of these teens surveyed admit to having seen pictures of people under the influence, and are four times likelier to use marijuana than those who haven’t scrolled through these images. The data makes sense: those exposed to pictures of drugs and alcohol are more inclined to seek and experiment with it themselves.

Dr. Charles Sophy, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, explains that “no matter what genetics a teen may possess, they are impressionable and adding social media to the already prevalent peer pressure only ramps that pressure up further.” He has treated several young adults that are now confronting the aftermath of prolonged social media exposure.

There is a small minority of people addicted and the good thing is that they can be helped. For some, social media is addictive and can be absolutely lethal.

The danger, Dr. Lager says, is that constant exposure to pictures of teens under the influence glamorizes the use of alcohol and drugs. “Teens may become desensitized and believe that since everyone else is trying them, they should too.” In terms of whether social media addiction exists, she explains that researchers have found some behavioral similarities between excessive Internet use and substance abuse, “including tolerance, withdrawal, unsuccessful attempts to cut back, and impairment in functioning.” However, Dr. Lager clarifies that additional research needs to be done before defining “social media addiction” as a distinct diagnosis. 

While many are quick to praise Facebook for transforming our social landscape by connecting millions of people, the conversation that examines whether our dependence on it is reaching destructive levels is a few steps behind. The University of Michigan addressed this issue in a study published in August of 2013 that observed the relationship between Facebook use and well-being. By texting study participants five times a day over two weeks about how they felt after using Facebook and how satisfied they were with their lives after the two-week period, their study found that Facebook negatively impacted them with each variable. The more people used Facebook “the worse they felt” and “the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time." If Facebook makes us feel worse, why can’t we stop ourselves from going back for more? 

The reason we can’t keep our thumbs away from updating, liking, and hashtagging was explored in a study conducted by Harvard University’s Psychology Department that found that there is a biological reward that happens when people disclose information about themselves. “Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area,” the study reported. Rewards were magnified when participants knew that their thoughts would be communicated to another person. So why are we so enmeshed in the allure of social media? It’s because we’re programmed that way.

Our desire to disclose personal information about ourselves to others is ingrained in the human condition—it’s not just a product of social media. It’s so ingrained, in fact, that people would actually forgo money to talk about themselves instead of discussing other people or answering fact questions. While this may not be a phenomenon specific to social media, social media does supply the platform to self-disclose to the masses and receive immediate feedback. Dr. Adi Jaffe, who holds a Ph.D in Psychology and serves as the Director of Research, Education, and Innovation at Alternatives, an addiction treatment program, comments on the downside to this phenomenon. “The immediacy and reward associated with social media (especially through mobile avenues) can be thought of as a ‘quick hit’ and would be expected to result in a minority of users experiencing ‘addiction-like’ symptoms,” he says.

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