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Identifying Signs of Social Media Addiction
Social media has become integral to life, whether marketing a business or keeping up with friends and family. However, social media has a dark side that can be addictive to individuals with certain risk factors.
Sadly, young people, in particular, are beginning to overuse the service and show warning signs of addiction to social media. If young people can recognize the warning signs of social media addiction, they can seek the appropriate assistance and avoid having their addiction control their life.
Top 6 Warning Signs of Addiction to Social Media
With how everyday social media use is these days, it can be challenging to determine what is expected and what falls into the addiction category.
Although scrolling through social media may not seem like a big deal, some people can become overly obsessed with it and take their usage to the extreme.
Most social media platforms are dominated by computer algorithms that are finely tuned to provide the exact content you love, causing many users to experience a burst of dopamine during their time on social media.
What’s An Algorithm?: Algorithms are computer programs that sort social media posts by relevancy to prioritize the type of content the individual user wants to see based on their past interactions with similar posts (e.g., liking, commenting, sharing).
An addiction can form when people depend on that rush of feel-good dopamine to function. However, by learning the warning signs of social media addiction, people can better recognize the symptoms in themselves or a loved one.
1: Mindlessly Scrolling
We’ve all been guilty of the “mindless scroll” on our preferred social media app, but that doesn’t automatically mean we’re all addicted. Scrolling a social media feed for hours is often compared to mindless snacking when you’re not hungry.
For people with social media addiction, this mindless scroll dominates most of their time. Some social media addicts will obsessively scroll due to “FOMO” or “Fear Of Missing Out” on real-time events, while others may search for posts that excite them and trigger dopamine release.
Algorithms aren’t perfect, so an addict could scroll for hours before seeing a post that gives them the “hit” those with social media addiction are searching for.
2: Experiencing Withdrawal When Not Online
Withdrawal symptoms are a huge warning sign of addiction to social media. Withdrawal can occur with social media addiction due to the brain’s reliance on the flood of dopamine from using social media.
When the brain becomes accustomed to social media usage that triggers dopamine release, it may struggle to function without the constant “high” dopamine causes.
Many components of social networking sites can cause the release of dopamine, such as social media notifications, seeing engagement on your post, or scrolling through content to find something exciting or unexpected.
Without these constant triggers for dopamine, addicts can experience negative side effects.
Common withdrawal symptoms of social media addiction include:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Loneliness and boredom
- Insomnia and other sleep disorders
- An increase in appetite
- Feelings of fear, despair, anxiety, or grief
- Psychosis, in severe cases
3: Following Online Strangers Obsessively
Social media has altered social interactions, especially in a post-pandemic world where remote work and online communication replaced so many in-person gatherings.
Young people and young adults, in particular, have normalized posting many intimate details about their personal life, which can give the illusion that a stranger is actually your best friend that you personally know.
The term “parasocial relationship” describes how one-sided relationships can form when one social media user extends energy, interest, and time and the other person (often a social media influencer) doesn’t know the other person exists.
For example, a social media addict that has formed a parasocial relationship with an influencer or celebrity may experience extreme distress when said influencer or celebrity does something problematic that seems like a betrayal of who the addict is.
4: Spending Excessive Amounts of Time Online
According to the most recent data, the average social media users spend 2 hours and 32 minutes on social media each day.
While no specific amount of time indicates social media addiction, most professionals suggest that more than 4 hours a day on social media indicates “heavy” or problematic social media use.
Thanks to features like “Screen Time” on Apple devices and “Digital Wellbeing” on Android devices, users and parents can monitor the amount of time individuals spend on social media platforms.
These use-monitoring features can be a helpful way to identify there’s a problem and set goals for treatment.
5: Living Vicariously Through Online Life
Social media has become a place for users to post their best moments or content that will encourage more engagement. Adolescents can quickly look at someone else’s perfectly curated social media account and believe their life is perfect.
Social media addicts may become fixated on posting perfect text posts, pictures, or videos, forgetting that real life is often messy and imperfect. Teens may begin to feel that the online world and what they post is better or more important than the real world.
Social media addicts who spend most of their time online may experience low self-esteem, body image problems, and social anxiety in real-life situations.
6: Doing Risky or Dangerous Things for Online Attention
Current social media trends and algorithms favor content with high engagement in views, likes, comments, and shares to other social media sites or friends and family. Content that attracts more engagement is not always healthy or positive, however.
Many social media influencers will engage in harmful behaviors or criminal activity to create and post content that gets the most attention.
For example, eating something inedible as an online “challenge” to be repeated by others or committing petty crimes to invoke outrage or more engagement.
Unfortunately, the algorithms on social media sites cannot determine if the content is safe or healthy.
Young people may see an individual gain massive online attention for doing something dangerous and attempt to replicate it or do something equally controversial to gain their online following.
What About Social Media Is Addictive?
Social media allows everyday people to have a platform for their thoughts and interests. While this may sound innocent enough, many people struggle to use social media healthily due to several factors.
- Algorithms: As you scroll social media sites, the algorithm notes what posts interact with and what content categories you spend a lot of time viewing. Users feel like their new favorite post is just around the corner because the scrolling never seems to stop.
- Endless content: All major social media sites have an endless main feed of content to peruse. With a neverending stream of personalized content to discover, many users struggle to stop the mindless scroll, even when it harms their physical health and mental health.
- A personal audience: People like to feel seen and celebrated. However, social media addicts may begin to equate their own self-worth with the number of views, likes, or comments they receive on a post. Each time a post performs well, the brain releases another wave of dopamine.
- “Fear of missing out,” or FOMO: Information spreads online faster than ever before. Whether it’s current events in the real world, news on cyberbullying, or online scandals, the fear of missing out on the excitement can keep people scrolling.
How Popular Social Media Platforms Can Become Addictive
Although the leading social media platforms tend to focus on a particular posting style, most platforms still use algorithms to keep the user scrolling and engaging with ads, which are the primary source of revenue for social media sites.
The truth is that social media sites want users to keep scrolling, as it helps the sites make more money. Unfortunately, however, this desire to make money creates the perfect environment for excessive use of social media and the development of addiction to social media.
Facebook began as a social networking site for college students to connect and plan school events. In recent years, Facebook has become more popular with young and older adults and is often used to keep in touch with family and friends you know.
Facebook can become addictive due to the various types of posts that can appear on an endless feed.
Common types of Facebook posts include:
- Long text posts
Twitter began as a place to post text statuses with a limited word count. Now the platform is one of the biggest social media sites for people to share their thoughts and post other media like pictures and videos.
On Twitter, it’s more common for users to interact with strangers and not link their accounts to their real identities, unlike on Facebook. The platform can be addictive due to the endless main feed and the labyrinth of replies underneath each tweet.
While every social media platform has specific issues, the discussions on Twitter can be especially contentious and create echo chambers that reinforce toxic beliefs.
Social media addicts may be unable to stop scrolling through discourse on a topic and struggle to put their phones down due to FOMO.
TikTok is exclusively for video sharing, with each video lasting anywhere from seconds long to 3 minutes maximum.
Like other social media apps, TikTok features a main feed (also called a “For You Page”) with an endless stream of short-form videos to scroll through based on the content you engage with.
Discovering an amusing or thrilling video can lead to the release of dopamine, prompting users to continue scrolling in search of their next source of entertainment.
Unfortunately, TikTok seldom stays out of the news cycle in recent years due to concerns over user privacy and its possible negative effect on mental health issues and misinformation among adolescents.
Additionally, the TikTok algorithm is often criticized for its basic design; critics argue that TikTok’s format is designed to be addictive to keep users actively engaged for as long as possible.
Instagram, owned by the same company that owns Facebook, originally began as a photography-focused app and continues only to allow users to post photos and videos.
Users can scroll endlessly through photos and videos on their personal feed of people they follow or a general “Discover” feed that is based on algorithms. There are no text posts or links to clutter the feed.
Although Instagram introduced a feature to hide the number of “likes” on a post to encourage users not to base their worth on engagement, many social media addicts don’t use this feature and rely on engagement for self-worth.
Who Is Most At-Risk for Social Media Addiction?
According to recent data from Search Logistics, young adults tend to be the most affected by social media addiction. In addition, young single women tend to have higher rates of social media addiction than men.
Teenagers are the second largest group affected, with many young people ages 13 to 18 spending a significant amount of their free time on social media, with an average of 3 hours daily.
Other risk factors for social media addiction include:
- History of addiction or addiction in the family
- Co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and social anxiety
- Individuals who experience significant levels of loneliness, impulsive behaviors, and low self-esteem
Differentiating Between Excessive Social Media Use and Addiction
Considering how everyday social media use is, it can be challenging to differentiate between addiction and excessive social media use.
While one could argue that both hurt the user’s mental health, addiction is directly related to what social media does to the brain.
People engaging in excessive social media use can go offline and not experience withdrawal symptoms, as their brains are not reliant on the flood of feel-good chemicals like dopamine to function.
For individuals dependent on the release of dopamine caused by social media, excessive social media use officially becomes a social media addiction.
What to Do If You Notice Warning Signs of Social Media Addiction
You are not alone if you notice the warning signs of social media addiction in yourself or a loved one. With social media’s increasing prevalence, many individuals seek professional help to overcome their addiction.
Things to do if you notice warning signs of social media addiction:
- Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your symptoms.
- Speak with your doctor about your symptoms and learn the available treatment options.
- Find or get a referral to a therapist with experience working with social media addiction.
- Work with your therapist and/or loved ones to develop better social media habits, learn digital detox strategies, and use smartphone features to limit app usage times or block apps entirely.
Getting Help for Social Media Addiction
Social media addiction can feel incredibly isolating, but many treatment options are available. Many social media addicts find success with behavioral therapies and support groups; rehab is seldom (if ever) needed for social media addiction.
The support group Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous is a great way to find resources and other addicts currently recovering.
If you need help with your social media addiction and don’t know where to start, you can also use SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to discover what treatment options are available in your area.
FAQs About the Warning Signs of Social Media Addiction
Is social media addictive?
Social media can be addictive. Not all users will develop an addiction to social media, but teens and young adults with certain factors are at increased risk of developing social media addiction.
Other risk factors for social media addiction include:
- History of other addictions or has family members with addiction
- People with high levels of impulsive behaviors, loneliness, and low self-esteem
- Co-occurring mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and social anxiety disorder
Is internet addiction the same as social media addiction?
While the two are similar, internet addiction and social media addiction are two separate conditions.
In the case of social media addiction, addicts are specifically addicted to the endless scrolling, engagement, validation from others, and notifications that all trigger the release of dopamine.
Internet addiction, on the other hand, is a more general addiction to anything on the Internet and not specifically just social media. Internet addiction might include compulsive web surfing, playing online games, and watching certain media, either on a desktop or a mobile device.
What are the negative effects of social media addiction?
Social media tends to only show the good parts of a person’s life, causing many users to assume there’s something they lack by comparison. Many people struggle with comparing their body, relationships, lifestyle, career, home, and other attributes to the curated posts of another user.
In addition to harming people’s views of themselves, social media also tends to create echo chambers where people aren’t exposed to differing ideas, instead only seeing posts that confirm their own viewpoint.
Misinformation and outright lies also run rampant on social media, which can have huge effects on people’s perception of reality outside of the online world. Sometimes, these lies can lead to self-harm or even acts of violence.
What are the symptoms of too much social media?
Signs of too much social media use include:
- Spending a large amount of time on social media
- Thinking about social media often when you’re not using it
- Using social media to the point that it gets in the way of different areas of your life, like work, school, and relationships
- Spending less time doing other activities or hobbies to use social media
- Experiencing feelings like anxiety and irritability when you can’t access social media
- Using social media as a way to cope with unwanted emotions
How many hours is considered excessive social media use?
Healthcare professionals assert that more than 4 hours a day of social media use is considered excessive. While this amount doesn’t mean someone is addicted, excessive social media use is considered unhealthy and could indicate a problem is present.
How can you tell that someone is struggling with social media addiction?
If someone you care about struggles to put down their phone, experiences withdrawals from not being on social media, spends all their free time on social media, or does risky things for content, they may have a social media addiction.
If you notice these warning signs in a loved one, start by having an honest conversation about these symptoms and encourage them to get help if they’re open to change.
What is the difference between social media addiction and other addictions (i.e., television, internet, etc.)?
Social media addiction is considered a behavioral addiction, similar to gambling addiction and internet addiction, where engaging in a specific behavior causes the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center.
Social media addiction differs in that the condition only occurs with the use of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.