Debate Continues Over Social Media Addiction

By Kelly Burch 01/05/18

One psychologist says that "Likes" and comments activate the same reward system in the brain as cocaine use. 

 three young people using social media on their smartphones

As medical professionals and researchers continue to debate whether there is a clinical definition for social media or internet addiction, some experts say that swiping, "liking" and commenting can be just as addictive as cocaine and opioids.

Dr. Tara Emrani, a psychologist at New York University Langone Health, told Fox News that social media interactions can release dopamine in the brain, activating the same reward system as addictive drugs. 

"Facebook likes and comments activate similar parts of the brain as opioids, where each like or positive comment activates the reward system and the brain releases dopamine," she said. "So, arguably, the feelings/experiences of the brain as a result of Facebook likes or comments is similar to those resulting from cocaine, albeit less intense.”

Although they may produce similar feelings, Emrani was careful to point out that social media and drugs are not equally harmful. “Opioids have other significant negative effects on the brain, including shrinkage of grey matter and loss of memory,” which social media use does not have, she said. 

A 2014 study previously compared social media use to gambling and drug addiction, and found that the habits were similar. However, some experts say that the comparison between social media and powerful drugs is overwrought. 

"Drugs affect the same brain reward pathways that are fundamental to our functioning, i.e., the pathway that makes eating when we are hungry, getting warm when we are cold, feel good," said Keith Humphreys, a professor and the Section Director for Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. "So the fact that something activates the same pathway as cocaine doesn't mean it's addictive, just that it's rewarding.”

Still, there is increasing interest in the idea of social media addiction. One study even found that heavy social media use can increase the likelihood of substance use disorder in some individuals. 

“The question of whether or not disordered online social networking use can be considered a ‘true’ addiction is a tough one,” study lead Julia Hormes said at the time. “I think the answer really depends on your definition of ‘addiction.’ Many people think of addictions as involving ingested substances. However, if we think about addiction more broadly as involving some kind of reward then it is easier to see how behaviors may be addictive.”

Social media use has also been correlated with increased risk for depression, and some people have turned to talk therapy to help them overcome their social media habits. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.