Last updated: 14 September 2023 & medically reviewed by Hailey Shafir
According to some surveys from 2020, Americans are spending as much as 17 hours per day looking at a screen, and a good portion of this time is spent on social media. Research is still ongoing but many studies suggest social media platforms can cause the same brain chemistry activity that is found in other behavioral addictions. Read here to learn more about social media addiction, the risk factors, digital detox, and other treatment options.
- Similar to addictive drugs, social media content and likes can trigger the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, which may explain why some people report feeling addicted to these platforms
- Some experts estimate up to 10 percent of people in the United States have social media addiction but it is hard to put an approximate figure as so many of us regularly engage with social platforms
- Social media giants like Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and youtube pour billions of dollars into advertising and hire engineers that are paid to make content more addictive. These sites also track your activity, customizing your feed to show you posts you are most likely to look at, watch, or comment on
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Understanding social media addiction
The popularity of social media platforms has intensified over the past decade. Many of us still use social media to connect, share content like videos and memes, read the news, or just kill time. Some people even make successful careers out of social media, such as influencers. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are more popular amongst teens and young adults whereas Facebook is generally used by all ages.
It may be difficult to see how something so seemingly harmless can turn into an addiction. The truth is that like other types of behavioral addictions (gambling, porn, sex) constant or excessive use of social media can have a harmful influence on the way your brain process pleasure and reward. Similar to addictive drugs, social media content, and likes can trigger the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, which may explain why some people report feeling addicted to these platforms.
One of the hallmark signs of addiction is continuing to use something even after it has clearly had negative impacts on your physical or mental health, relationships, work, or other vital areas of life. More and more people are reporting that heavy social media use negatively impacts their relationships and self-esteem and makes them less productive at work or school, which is a red flag that may indicate addiction.
Some experts estimate up to 10 percent of people in the United States have social media addiction. Still, it is hard to put an approximate figure as so many of us regularly engage with social platforms.
Why is social media so addictive?
Behavioral addictions have much the same effect on the brain as drugs and alcohol, and the same is no different for social media. For those who engage with social media apps on a regular basis, the process of scrolling and intaking images, posting and receiving positive affirmations from others, and other stimuli create the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine reacts with neurotransmitters and creates feelings of pleasure and reward and causing the formation of “addiction pathways” in the brain that makes it hard to resist urges or stop the behavior.
The more you engage with social media and receive the rewarding dopamine hit it creates, the more your brain will seek it out to get another hit. This can lead to people using social media for longer periods of time in order to get the same feeling. This leads to a tolerance forming, where the required level of stimuli needed (in this case social media) to get the same dopamine reaction increases. This tolerance can lead to dependence, where the user needs interaction with social media in order to feel normal. If left unchecked, the negative aspects of this dependence can lead to addiction.
Social media is in most cases free, readily available on modern devices, and culturally accepted and integrated into society. This means that people can spend excessive amounts of time and energy on social media apps without being scrutinized or questioned, and unlike many drugs, people usually don’t get in trouble for spending too much time on Facebook or Tiktok.
Also, social media giants like Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and youtube pour billions of dollars into advertising and hire engineers that are paid to make content more addictive. These sites also track your activity, customizing your feed to show you posts you are most likely to look at, watch, or comment on. This all makes social media more addictive in nature and makes it harder for the average person to disconnect.
What are the negative effects of social media addiction?
There is no harm in using social media platforms every now and then, even every day, but the more time spent on it the more likely you are to experience the negative aspects. Some possible negative consequences from overusing social media include:
Low self-esteem and comparing yourself to others
Increased isolation and loneliness
FOMO (Fear of missing out and feeling excluded)
Social anxiety and embarrassment
Exposure to negative people, trolls, or bullies
Disrupted sleep patterns when using at night because of the effects of blue light
Decreased physical activity, which may affect your overall health
Poor academic performance
Ignoring the relationships in your “real” life
Reduced ability to empathize with others
Exposure to fake news and misinformation
Developing more extreme views because of one-sided customized content
developing an overall internet addiction
Feeling withdrawal symptoms when not using social media websites
How do you know if you have social media addiction?
While there may be no medical diagnosis for social media addiction, a doctor or psychiatrist will be able to determine whether you display the hallmark symptoms of addiction or if your social media use is at a safe level.
Addiction is measured from mild to severe using 11 criteria of addiction outlined in the DSM-5. Those who meet two or fewer criteria would be classified as mild (not addicted) and those meeting six or more criteria would be classed as having a substance use disorder.
More social media usage than intended
Experiencing cravings having frequent thoughts or urges to check social networking sites
Problems or conflicts in relationships because of social media use
Social media impairing your ability to function, work, or complete tasks
Cutting back on activities you enjoy to use social media more often
Experiencing physical or emotional discomfort when you stop or cut back
Trying unsuccessfully to stop or cut back on social media
Negative impacts to your physical or mental health
Continued use of social media despite problems, consequences, or impairments
Using in situations that are risky or hazardous (i.e. while driving or working)
reduced real-world social interaction
Needing more time/likes/follows to get the same amount of pleasure or enjoyment from social media
How can you decrease social media use?
It is always easier to overcome an addiction if prevention starts early, and by following a few of these steps you can get to a healthy level of social media use. Here are a few simple steps to combating a social networking addiction, or even cutting down if you are using apps too much:
Delete your social media apps from your smartphone to decrease the amount of time spent on social media overall
Turn off your personal phone during work, as well as during school, meals, and recreational activities.
Adjust the setting on each social media app so you can turn off certain notifications
Set aside a certain amount of time dedicated to social media per day
Turn on a timer to help keep you accountable for how much time you spend online
Leave your phone, tablet, and computer out of your bedroom
Take up a new hobby that’s not technology-related like sports, art, or classes
Make it a point to see your friends and family in person when possible
Take regular breaks from social media altogether to help find some real-life grounding
Related: Tips for reducing gambling
If you notice some of the signs of social media addiction, work on trying to set some clear limits around how much or how often you log in, and how much time you spend on these platforms. Keep in mind these platforms are designed to get and hold your attention, so work on taking control of your usage instead of letting these sites control you. This way, social media can be something that enhances your quality of life, instead of diminishing it.