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Causes of Social Media Addiction

Excessive use of social media can have negative effects on both mental and physical health, particularly in young people who are more susceptible. By gaining insight into the underlying causes, we can make informed decisions for ourselves and our loved ones.

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What Factors Lead to Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction can seriously affect the mental and physical health of people predisposed to addiction. As social media invades more and more of our daily lives, especially those of vulnerable young people, the risk of addiction grows.

By better understanding the underlying causes of addiction to social media, we can make more informed decisions for ourselves and the young people in our lives.

Common Causes of Social Media Addiction

The exact cause of social media addiction is complex and includes several factors. Researchers are still trying to understand social media’s effects on adolescents and our culture.

As the technology that powers social media platforms becomes more sophisticated, the causes of social media addiction may shift. For now, certain risk factors, combined with the purposely addicting design of social media apps, drive many to develop a social media addiction.

Genetics

Social media addiction is considered a behavioral addiction (e.g., gambling or shopping). The same genes that increase your chances of having a substance use disorder can also increase your chances of having a social media addiction.

These genes are passed down through your parents, so knowing of addiction in your family can be a powerful tool to avoid the disease for yourself.

Brain Chemistry

Social media addiction occurs by activating the reward center of your brain, which is responsible for releasing chemicals (dopamine) associated with pleasure, reward, and happiness.

When individuals access social media platforms, their brain experiences a surge of dopamine that induces a sensation of euphoria, prompting them to crave the same experience repeatedly.to crave the same experience repeatedly.

Because the design of many social media apps focuses on keeping you scrolling and activating the brain’s reward center, many social media addicts struggle to log off or put their phones down.

The effect is even more dramatic for people with low dopamine levels, which is common in depression, ADHD, and other mental illnesses.

Depression, Impulsiveness, and Low Self-Esteem

Individuals with mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, ADHD, low self-esteem, and body image issues are especially susceptible to social media addiction.

Many people will use social media to increase dopamine levels in their brains and “feel better” or get positive feedback from others.

Social media apps are designed to keep the user on their service for as long as possible, so many apps focus on instant gratification.

Computer algorithms cater a user’s feed to their interests based on past online behavior so that scrolling can feel like a treasure hunt.

In the case of children and teens with depression, low self-esteem, or impulsive traits, this instant gratification can rewire their brains to begin obsessively or compulsively seeking out the dopamine high from social media.

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What Makes Social Media Addictive?

Social media sites use algorithms to personalize a user’s experience by strategically showing them content they are likely to enjoy, keeping them scrolling for longer periods.

Some examples of how social media can become addictive include:

  • Finding an exciting or engaging post can feel like winning at a slot machine after minutes or hours of mindless scrolling.
  • Receiving likes, comments, shares, and messages due to pictures and videos you post can flood your brain with dopamine and make you feel good.
  • Celebrities and influencers often run giveaways on social media accounts to reward followers. This can create a sense of urgency among users to stay active on the platform so they don’t miss out on the opportunity to win prizes.
  • Social media users often use their accounts to showcase the best parts of their life, causing others to obsess over them and compare themselves to impossible standards.
  • Excessive social media use as a coping mechanism to avoid the real world or to avoid dealing with physical or mental health conditions.

How Social Media Affects the Brain

Each time a social media addict receives positive feedback on a social media site, it can trigger the release of dopamine in their brain’s reward center.

Positive feedback can come in the form of stumbling upon an exciting post, receiving likes or comments from others, receiving a notification for the app, or simply posting something personal online.

While the triggers may vary from person to person, the effect is still the same.

Over time, the brain can become dependent on dopamine release from problematic social media use and struggles to function without it.

Withdrawal symptoms may appear when the addict isn’t on social media, often in the form of cravings, anxiety, mood swings, sleep problems, and irritability.

Risk Factors for Developing Social Media Addiction

Young adults and teens are most at risk for developing social media addiction. In addition, young women tend to have a higher risk factor than men, although anyone can develop an addiction to social networking sites under the right circumstances.

Other risk factors for social media addiction include:

  • History of addiction in the social media user or their family
  • Social media usage of more than four hours a day
  • Co-occurring mental health issues such as low self-esteem, body image issues, social anxiety, depression, ADHD, self-control issues, impulsive behaviors, and addictive behaviors
  • Individuals who struggle with face-to-face social interaction, loneliness, and personal dissatisfaction
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How to Prevent Addiction to Social Media

With how integral social media has become in daily life, it’s possible to prevent social media addiction. If you’re worried you or a loved one may be at risk of addiction to social media, there are some things you can do to avoid the negative consequences of addiction.

Limit Time Spent on Social Media

Numerous individuals addicted to social media confess to losing track of time and spending hours scrolling through their feeds without even realizing it.

The average person spends about two and a half hours on social media, so check your smartphone’s screen time or digital well-being report to see how your current times compare. If you spend more than four hours on social media, you may want to consider cutting down.

Some phones come with software that warns you or blocks the app when you’ve hit certain time limits you’ve set. You can also install apps on your phone or your child’s phone to help limit extended overuse of social media.

Good apps for limiting the use of social media include:

Ask Friends or Family to Hold You Accountable

Cutting down on social media use can be challenging to do on your own, and it’s not a simple matter of self-control. Asking a loved one to help keep you accountable is a great way to stay on track with limiting internet use.

Doing this can be as easy as sending your accountability buddy the screen time results to show you’re staying on track. You can also ask in-person loved ones to intervene and invite you to other activities if they see you scrolling for long periods of time.

Be More Aware of the Content You Consume

It’s far too easy to spend a lot of time mindlessly scrolling, unaware of what content you’re actually seeing. But the reality is that some content can harm behavioral health without us realizing it.

For example, scrolling past hundreds of posts with perfectly edited bodies and faces can slowly make you feel inadequate, or you may compare yourself to them without noticing it.

By actively questioning the intentions of social media posts and checking in with your mindset, you can be more aware of how content affects you.

Find a Hobby or Activity to Replace Scrolling

Although “get a hobby” or “go touch grass” is a common insult or form of cyberbullying online, there is some truth to reconnecting with things in real life.

Hobbies or spending some with loved ones won’t magically solve your problems, but engaging in offline life more frequently does help.

If you find yourself scrolling at certain times of the day, try replacing those sessions with another offline activity. For example, if you use social media for an hour after lunch, try replacing it with a walk with a friend.

Find a hobby you can dive into and get obsessed with. If you use time limits on your social media usage, let that notification be your sign to work on your hobby instead.

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Finding Help for Social Media Addiction

Social media addiction can feel incredibly isolating and embarrassing, especially for young people, but you are not alone. You can start by talking to a loved one about your social media usage or ask your doctor what treatment options are available to you.

Connecting with other social media addicts in recovery through support groups can be an excellent tool for self-help. Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous offers peer support for social media addiction and internet addiction and 12-step programs for those interested.

If you don’t have a doctor or trusted person to talk to, you can always use SAMHSA’s treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357(HELP) to receive resources on social media addiction treatment options in your area.

FAQ's About the Causes of Social Media Addiction

What causes social media addiction?

Social media addiction is caused by a mixture of genetic predisposition to addiction, co-occurring mental health concerns, and the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system.

Social media apps are also specifically designed to keep people seeking instant gratification through scrolling for extended amounts of time, which leads to profits for the social media company.

The combination of these factors puts young people, in particular, at risk for developing social media addiction, as they are the largest demographic using the top social media apps like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

How do I know if I’m addicted to social media?

Warning signs you may be addicted to social media include:

  • Mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds for hours despite negative consequences
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not on social media
  • Obsessively following and thinking about strangers you follow online
  • Living vicariously through your online life, even preferring it over real life
  • Spending most of your time on social media due to “FOMO” or “Fear Of Missing Out.”
  • Doing risky or dangerous things for content to post on your social media account
  • Missing out on opportunities or social events to use social media instead

Why are teens so vulnerable to social media addiction?

Teenage brains are still developing, making them susceptible to relying on the instant gratification and reward social media apps provide.

Teens and young people make up the majority of users on online social networking sites, so they are specifically catered to by companies who own the site.

Unfortunately, social media apps aren’t considering the mental health implications their services can have on teens. Many sites simply see profits when a teen social media user spends hours and hours on their site, viewing profitable ads.

How can I protect my teen from social media addiction?

Start by having an honest and open conversation with your teen about their social media use. Try not to nag or shame them for using social media. Instead, ask them how using social media makes them feel and check in on their mindset.

Giving your child a chance to speak their mind and share their thoughts without judgment makes them more likely, to be honest about how social media use affects them. Together, you can determine if their social media usage is problematic to their health and how that can be addressed.

You can propose using the time limits that come pre-installed on smartphones or use apps like KidsGuard or AppBlock to help your teen limit the amount of time they’re on social media.

What are some effects of social media addiction?

Common effects of social media addiction include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable when there is no access to the internet, the social media site is down, or the service runs slower than usual
  • Feeling bad about oneself when you don’t get likes, retweets, or views on a post
  • Checking social media first thing in the morning and right before bed
  • Feeling stressed when your phone isn’t in your hand or pocket
  • Using social media while walking or driving
  • Worsening mental health symptoms due to social media
  • Withdrawing from face-to-face interaction with friends and family
  • Feeling bad about yourself due to comparing your appearance of life to that of strangers on the internet
  • Having thoughts of self-harm or suicide due to cyberbullying or comparing yourself to others online
Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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