Social media: A new addiction

Addictions to illegal substances attract the most headlines, but many addictions form around perfectly legal behavior. Addiction is a behavior your body’s chemistry compels you to repeat regardless of the consequences. Many of us are familiar with one of the newest forms of addiction: social media. Recent studies give insight into how addiction alters our behavior and how social media sites are designed to reinforce social media addiction.

The Iowa Gambling Task

Findings from Michigan State University, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, found decision-making capabilities were impaired amongst heavy social media users. Participants in the study were sorted based on social media use by a survey asking them to rate their level of preoccupation with Facebook. The survey asked how they felt when unable to use it, whether they’d attempted to quit the platform and the overall impact that Facebook had on their work.

Using a test called the Iowa Gambling Task, the researchers gave participants four decks of cards with rewards and punishments interspersed throughout. Two of the decks would have give or take $50 with more money being rewarded in the long run. The other two decks would give or take $100 but had more punishments. The more that participants used social media, the worse they were at selecting decks. The opposite was true of participants who used social media less. The researchers found the proportion of good to bad deck selection amongst the social media group was similar to other Iowa Gambling Task tests with participants who were and weren’t addicted to substances. The researchers found a correlation between problematic social media use and risky decision-making skills similar to addictions to substances or gambling.

Distracting by design

Whether poor decision making is caused by social media use or is predisposed, making the decision to quit is made difficult by the very design of most social media platforms. If addicted, even people who find social media use stressful will respond to that stress by using a different function of the same platform when they feel stress as opposed to closing the app altogether. One study found that rather than turning off social media after it became stressful, excessive users switched to an activity which they considered different but still part of the same platform: following friends, posting pictures, chatting or gaming. This illusion of variation embeds the user deeper into the platform and reinforces addictive behavior.

Learning to turn off

The latest science on addiction finds it to be a pathological form of learning. As we learn as a society about these new ways of interacting with technology and each other, our bodies are also learning to respond to  “likes” or “mentions” on social media. When you have an addiction, the object of your addiction triggers your body to release dopamine, which makes you want to repeat that activity even as the amount of dopamine released slowly decreases over time. Unfortunately, as long as social media addiction is found to be profitable, there’s little incentive among tech companies to design technology that rewards use in moderation. We must be careful that as we learn to use social media, we remember to stay grounded in the real world.

If you or someone you know are experiencing social media addiction, start by trying the following steps:

  • Set “screen-free” times throughout your days.
  • Schedule specific times to answer texts or emails.
  • Don’t use your phone as an alarm clock or watch.
  • Engage in activities where phone use is impossible.
  • Tell your friends you are on a social media detox.

There are also agencies that you can reach out to if you need extra assistance like eMentalHealth or centers like reStart.


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