“Time,” to paraphrase a Carl Sandburg poem, “is the only coin you have, so spend it wisely.”
What constitutes wise use of one’s time can be viewed as a subjective matter, but many of us would agree that spending large chunks of time to feed an unhealthy addiction would not fall under the “wise use” categorization.
When it comes to the use of social media—a relatively new phenomenon—striking a balance between productive versus addictive use comes easier for some people than others.
As recently as 2011, only 35 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. By early 2021, that figure had grown to 85 percent. With the growth in smartphone ownership and usage, time spent online has grown, and more time spent online means more time spent on social media. The more people there are spending time on social media, the higher the likelihood for an increase in social media addiction.
Is social media addictive?
While social media addiction is not an official diagnosis, social media can indeed be addictive. But that does not mean everyone with a Facebook or Instagram account is hopelessly obsessing over the number of likes, mentions, and shares their posts have received.
Many social media accountholders can and do use these platforms responsibly without anything remotely resembling addictive behavior. In fact, some people must remind themselves to check their social media accounts now and then so they do not miss something that may actually interest them.
Even among those who frequently use their social media accounts, the worst behavior may just fall under the rubric of annoying friends and family members by checking their phone every five or ten minutes while they are all involved in an in-person conversation. That sort of attention splitting can indeed be less than ideal for situations that involve real humans interacting with each other in the same space, but checking one’s phone several times an hour does not, in and of itself, constitute social media addiction.
But one’s relationship with social media could devolve into something far more serious, such as losing interest in interpersonal contact and retreating into an online world where a thumbs-up emoji from a stranger reacting to a clever quip in a tweet takes the place of in-person interaction with friends and family members.
Regardless of how much time we spend on social media, some of us are good at finding new ways to empower the technology that started out—or so we thought—serving us.
“I’m pretty sure if I do get married,” said British entrepreneur and author Poppy Jamie in a 2016 TEDx talk in Hollywood, “Siri will be doing the speech at my wedding.”
She was joking—or was she?
How does social media addiction start?
As social media becomes more established in our lives, the temptation to use it for a quick emotional pick-me-up is broadening. Especially with the recent ubiquitousness of mobile phones, complete with speedy internet browsers and all manner of apps, the notion that an immediate response via a handheld device is the equivalent of genuine connection can begin to exert undue influence on our decision making.
The British American author Simon Sinek, who puts a premium on work-life balance and understanding the “why” behind what one is doing, has observed that this sort of technologically driven reinforcement loop based on instant gratification can be especially problematic for adolescents, who are just beginning to look for approval outside their familial units.
“We’ve all had it,” Sinek said in a 2016 interview, “when you’re feeling a little bit down, a little bit lonely, so you send out ten texts to ten friends . . . ’cause it feels good when you get a response.”
Social media is readily accessible, and there are no age-dependent restrictions on using it as there are with certain substances and activities.
What makes social media addictive?
When social media does become addictive, the cause of that addiction boils down to one word—dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that surges in our brains when we are engaged with social media, especially when we see others responding to our online activity with likes and other forms of positive reinforcement.
“Dopamine is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink, and when we gamble,” Sinek said. “In other words, it’s highly, highly addictive.”
By instantaneously getting some of our deepest needs addressed through audible pings and visual stimulation via positive emojis, repeatedly incurring a dopamine surge becomes a kind of omnipresent option. It is not unlike compulsive snacking or calling one’s bookie to get a bet down on the next game. It may not be the healthiest of choices, but in the moment, behavior patterns that contribute to full-blown social media addiction can get us where we feel like we want to be.
Tech companies—and the businesses that advertise with them—know this. They thrive when we stay engaged. While that can be a win-win situation a lot of the time, it can also lead to low self-esteem, depression, and other cracks in the emotional and mental health of those who, with little to no conscious awareness of what’s happening, begin to see happy faces and hearts sent by strangers on a social media platform as a necessary prerequisite for their own sense of self-worth.
If you find yourself losing large chunks of time to unplanned social media activity or feel powerless over the amount of time you are spending on social media, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. If you are in crisis, we have some immediate free resources on our crisis support page.
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