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?
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.
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.