Are Our Kids “Addicted” To Social Media?

By Karen Corcoran-Walsh 01/26/17

The AAP stated that obesity, sleep deprivation, impaired cognitive development, creating unhealthy relationships, and creating unhealthy behaviors are all potential risks.

Are Our Kids “Addicted” To Social Media?
Face-to-face has given way to face-to-Facebook.

Is our growing reliance on social media, cell phones and other technological advances simply the way we communicate now? Or are they dangerous, and addiction-prone? The answer might be bifurcated generationally, with younger people who are spending their formative years in a tech-preoccupied culture more prone to deleterious impact than those of us who grew up during a time when direct, face-to-face communication was by far the most common way to interact with others. Karen Corcoran-Walsh raises the alarm…Richard Juman, PsyD

The process of enculturation in the United States starts with a child learning by interacting with the mother, father, siblings and other family members. In addition, some children are influenced by members outside of the home. However, it is not until the child enters preschool or kindergarten that he or she spends most of the day in the company of others. These new friends and teachers are learning tools for a child, as the child observes and grows from their behaviors. Even then, the child would normally return to the home environment and have the family's cultural values reinforced. With the ever-growing entity of social media, however, a great deal of attention has been drawn to its influence over children, teens, and adolescents.

Social media has a powerful influence nationwide. As technological advances have emerged, social media has evolved into its own entity. It was recently reported that almost one-fourth of teens who were interviewed said that they are on some type of social media site on a continual, non-stop basis. Lenhart also shared that 92 percent of youth, from ages 8 to 16, stated that they are online daily. Given these incredible findings, social media-related behavioral changes among our youth simply cannot be ignored. Their focus on communicating via Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and countless other platforms exhibits many of the exact traits of addiction.

Mobile devices are a direct source of stimulation. They are convenient, entertaining, and their use is modeled by parents, teachers, and society as a whole. Parents often utilize iPads as a teaching tool for their toddlers, having them interact with age-appropriate alphabet and numerical games. Simply put, youths are exposed to such behaviors at a young age, while also being conditioned by their surroundings, watching how and when their parents interact with themselves and others. How, though, can this be categorized as an actual addiction? In order to fully comprehend the depths of social media addiction, it is incredibly important to understand the term “addiction” and the exact meaning of the word.

Addiction. We hear this word, and while there are many different associations to the term itself, depending on one’s societal and familial ties, it easily expands beyond the realm of drugs and alcohol. A behavioral addiction is present when a person is spending an unhealthy amount of time and effort on a specific topic, task, or interactive platform. The disease of addiction is also defined and accompanied by self-medicating behaviors. Today’s youth are essentially receiving a payoff from their overuse of these sites. Whether it is communicating with peers, engaging in the latest gossip, playing online games, or following the latest posts of celebrities, adolescents self-medicate via social media. Lenhart even highlighted that these obsessive behaviors show a differing presence among genders, as teenage girls “dominate visually-oriented social-media platforms” like Facebook and Instagram. Their use is directly interfering with real-life events and the relationships surrounding them.

Wilson specifically notes that social networking is a prime example of a developed behavioral addiction. Communication used to be limited to regular home telephones and face-to-face conversation. Additionally, although recent generations may find this shocking, writing letters used to be one of the most intimate forms of self-expression and a regular means of relaying emotions, feelings, or just having general discussions. As these once-popular means of communication have dwindled and become obsolete, youth’s constant use of cell phone devices are on the rise, and are modeled by the very society that surrounds them (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).

Negative Impact - Research and Real Life Scenarios

According to Steyer (2013), the evolution and progression of modern technology has deeply impacted society, cultures, groups, behaviors, and individuals, “with modern technology increasing the ways in which people can stay electronically connected, there is a more pervasive and constant influence of the media.” Most children simply will not read books if their parents do not model this behavior. Northern Arizona University released a study which many will find simply amazing, as it serves as a testament to social media effects on children at a young age. Sosa (2016) monitored a group of children who ranged in age from 10 months to 16 months. Play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys, and books were analyzed and the data collected is extremely revealing and important. The children who played with the iPad and electronic notebooks were notably less physically, emotionally, and socially active with their parents once the device was taken. There was an extreme decrease in “quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys,” described Sosa. Children were given traditional books and simply did not know how to turn the page, as they were so conditioned to touch-screens and electronic interactions! Simply put, they didn’t know what a book was, because they had never been given one or had an adult model how to use it.

Important Consequences

Within the primary years of a child’s life, they are exposed to numerous technological advances. Parents, caregivers, and educational facilities must monitor their use of such resources and make very certain that these technologies do not serve as a replacement for real-life nurturing, interactions, and tangible responsive relationships. Harvard University points out that serve-and-return interactions are critical components for infants, toddlers, and young children, as they shape the brain’s architecture. “When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.” Furthermore, when these connections are nonexistent, a child can experience an onset of anxiety. This anxiety manifests from the body’s activation of its stress hormones. 

Dr. Clair McCarthy is an expert in the field of child development, and her recent research, released by Harvard Health Publications, recommends that children should not interact with media any more than two hours per day. Harvard University stated that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) highlighted some eye-opening revelations to the downside of excessive screen time. The AAP stated that obesity, sleep deprivation, impaired cognitive development, creating unhealthy relationships, and creating unhealthy behaviors (mimicking observed acts of sex, violence, and drug abuse) are all potential risks. Teenagers can easily suffer consequences when they are dependent on these media outlets. For example, social media may interfere with the integration of experience because important milestones and memories are almost impossible to create and internalize when kids are distracted and obsessed with the most recent Facebook posting. Harvard University also noted that social skills cannot be practiced and maintained, and losing sleep because of the need to stay connected to social media can cause havoc. A lack of sleep can “have tremendous impacts on both mental and physical health.” Additionally, an unhealthy preoccupation with social media and technology can actually compromise one’s physical safety, as when a teenager uses their phone while driving, in addition to the “general and important ability to sustain attention” described by Harvard University.

Parents - What Are the Signs to Watch Out For?

Monitoring a child’s time online is a critical part of intercepting the development of social media addiction. Research has highlighted specific emotional, psychological, societal, and physical signs and symptoms connected to the manifestation of this illness. Close, keen parental observation can identify these symptoms. According to recent data revealed by the Pew Research Center, anxiety and depression are two of the more pervasive symptoms that parents or guardians can be on the lookout for. For instance, anxiety and depressive signs may emerge when the adolescent is unable to connect to their social media sites. And when children are lacking emotional support from an immediate family member, they are likely to turn to social media to fill the anxiety and depressive-based voids. 

Parents are warned to watch out for their child isolating themselves from family gatherings or even from their “normal” group of friends. A child addicted to social media may no longer find interest in sports or other activities they once loved and thrived in. Other physical symptoms include recurring headaches or signs of a sore neck. McCarthy (2016) even speaks of a new warning sign referred to as phantom vibration syndrome. This is when a child is regularly checking their mobile device despite the fact that there was no ring, alert or vibration. More obvious signs are ignoring their own safety, parental rules, and actual laws, such as driving while texting or honing in on social media when their immediate attention is required in their surrounding environment. 

Help and Treatment

Though cell phone addiction has not been specifically listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), it is ever-present within today’s youth and adolescents. There are treatments readily available that have productive, promising programs that provide assessment, treatment and recovery plans. Most programs, importantly, place limitations on social media use and interaction with the child’s cell phone. More family-based options exist, like outpatient services and even boot camps, which take a more extreme approach to eliminating all technologies and focusing on reconnecting with family and the beauties of our natural environment. These treatment options are extremely important resources to consider when trying to decide where to get help for your child: professional facilities treating this illness as a behavioral disorder.

These facilities anticipate extreme reactions to being cut off from the outside world. For example, children attending such residential programs often evidence outbursts of extreme emotions, panic attacks and elevated manipulation tactics. A withdrawal-like behavior similar to drug detox can occur as well. Mental health may become impaired, in that isolation and relationship skills may suffer as well as other conditions. The primary goal of treatment is to help each child regain control of their life, and find a balance between using technology and social media while maintaining healthy relationships and acknowledging the importance of the real world, rather than the virtual one.

There is Hope

While one cannot deny that there are positive influences of technology, we also cannot ignore its numerous negative impacts on children and adolescents. These negative influences, however, can be overridden by strong parental values, beliefs and behaviors which have been acquired through their own culture and the expectations of society. “The fact is, social media addiction is real and requires attention from societal and parental roles,” describes CyberPsychology & Behavior expert Keith W. Beard. A lack of emotional support for an adolescent leaves the door wide open for them to turn to the internet and social media to fulfill these unmet needs. The onset of social media addiction has the potential to be intercepted. Healthy relationships and one-on-one interactions, both physical and mental, need to override the amount of time a child spends online, delving and sinking into the virtual world. Even after the onset of this addiction, parents and caregivers have specific cues to watch out for, as this behavioral illness is treatable. Furthermore, by acknowledging the societal and cognitive damage that can be done, adults have the opportunity to be prepared for intervening and providing the resources for their child’s healthy recovery and future.

Karen Corcoran-Walsh, CAP, ICADC, MFT, ASAM holds a Master of Science degree from Nova Southeastern University and is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist. A former school teacher, she has worked with children of all ages for nearly 20 years in preschool, elementary, junior and senior high school. She is the owner and co-founder of the prominent teen rehab Inspirations for Youth and Families, and the Cove Center for Recovery, an adult therapy program. She has appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and “Teen Talk.”

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Karen Corcoran-Walsh, CAP, ICADC, MFT, ASAM holds a Master of Science degree from Nova Southeastern University and is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist. A former school teacher, she has worked with children of all ages for nearly 20 years in preschool, elementary, junior and senior high school. She is the owner and co-founder of the prominent teen rehab Inspirations for Youth and Families, and the Cove Center for Recovery, an adult therapy program. She has appeared on the Dr. Phil Show and “Teen Talk.” You can also find her on Linkedin and Twitter.