Is Social Media Dependence a Mental Health Issue?
Dr. Jaffe’s response is not the first time someone compared the effect of social media to a hit of a drug. Rameet Chawla, a programmer and not so avid social media user, encountered a scenario showing the entrenched power social media can hold over someone’s life. A self-professed narcissist in terms of his Instagram, Chawla only posted things for mere bragging rights. He told the Daily Dot that his friends were growing agitated because of his inactive response to their posts on social networks. To solve the conflict, Chawla created a bot that would automatically go through his feed and like all of his friends’ posts. After the program went into effect he became so popular that his follower count skyrocketed, his pictures were liked more often, and someone even recognized him on the street. He said, “People are addicted. We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar responses.” Chawla’s comparing the rush of social media fame to crack cocaine may seem extreme, but this type of association is becoming a ubiquitous metaphor.
Many people have correlated the high one feels from increasing recognition on social networks to drugs, and Dr. Sophy explains how that rush affects the psychology of teens. “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.” However, Dr. Sophy explains that these are “false measures, and when reality sets in, anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric issues begin to emerge.”
Is social media unleashing a new problem that wasn’t there before, or intensifying other underlying issues?
“Social media is simply providing a quicker peeling of the onion, however in most cases the problems were already there,” Dr. Sophy says. He also believes that there are similar mindsets and behaviors that lead people to be addicted to substances as well as social media. “Many people are genetically predisposed to use excessive amounts of potentially harmful tools (sex, substances, food, social media, etc.) to self soothe. And yet there are others who learn these behaviors due to life circumstances and events.”
So, what do we do about it? Dr. Adi Jaffe feels the best course of action is to redirect our focus. “The interesting thing is that since experimentation with substances is so common in that age group [teenagers], not experimenting at all has been shown to possibly indicate some social maladjustment. The question then becomes if experimenting with substances is the problem we should be focusing on, or if rather we should be focusing our attention on doing a better job of identifying and providing the appropriate support for those who are struggling,” Dr. Jaffe says. This prescription speaks volumes to the recovery community. Most recovering addicts and alcoholics understand that many people can experiment and not get addicted. Just as the solution to alcoholism is not to regress back to the times of prohibition, instead of restricting social media, treatment needs to be available for the populations that do develop serious uncontrollable habits.
Dr. Lager believes that we are still in the infant stages of understanding whether “excessive internet use causes depression, or if teenagers with depression and other psychological problems are more likely to overuse the internet.” Dr. Lager continues, “In my private practice I see teens with anxiety and depression that use the Internet to reach out for help and look for social support. It becomes a problem when they use it excessively as a way to disconnect from their feelings and escape their problems.”
So, how do we digest these professional opinions and where do we place social media on the positive and negative scale? Dr. Bernard Luskin, the President of the “Society for Media Technology and Psychology” of the American Psychological Association, encapsulates the binary and comments on the recent news regarding Danny Bowman. “Social media is a tool for good and evil,” Luskin says. “Danny Bowman had OCD. The vehicle just happened to be social media, if it wasn’t that one, it would have been another one. It’s a case where OCD got out of control.”
Many adults in their 20’s and 30’s are quick to judge the data and refute social media addiction as an actual reality. While most accept that they have been raised to be more wanting of instant gratification than their parents, with every answer at the touch of a fingertip, they feel that they did just fine growing up with Myspace and Facebook. But, Millennials may not be in the correct chat room to judge. Dr. Luskin believes that teens today are part of a generation he deems “technology natives,” while adults in their 20’s and 30’s are “technology immigrants.” As adults today, we can’t possibly understand the reality of being born into a technology run universe. Social networks are such an ingrained part of the identity of children today that there must be psychological effects we, as “immigrants,” can’t accurately grasp.
In terms of his stance on whether we can categorize social media obsession as an addiction, Dr. Luskin responds with the difference between what he calls “soft addictions” and “hard addictions.” “We draw the line between habit and addiction when it interferes with living a normal life,” he says. Since we can’t deny that social media addiction exists for some, Dr. Luskin believes that we can’t dispute that it’s real. “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, just like anything else can be—even water can be deadly and people do drown themselves. We need to be circumspect and never dismiss the problem and say no.”
Clearly, addictive tendencies are emerging from our relationship with social media, and while we haven’t reached a consensus on whether social media addiction is an actual mental health diagnosis, something is definitely up besides ‘likes’. Today, social media is praised as a sought-after career skill by plenty of employers, but what if it’s harming the younger generations who can’t even fathom a life without profile pictures and follower counts?
Emma Stein is a pseudonym for a Los Angeles based journalist. She last wrote about her intervention.