Is Social Media Addiction Real – And How Do We Treat It?

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Ever found yourself a little late for work because you spend too long scrolling through your social media feeds in the morning? Do you zone out in the middle of a conversation with someone in your life because you got a Facebook notification, and you felt the urge to check it there and then? You’re not alone. Millions of people experience the same thing every day, and we look upon it as being part and parcel of modern life. Should we, though? And if we have such compulsive habits around social media, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that it could be addictive

To some of the more conservative voices in both politics and healthcare, the idea that someone could become addicted to social media is laughable. They’ll tell you that it’s just a website, and as it doesn’t enter your body as a chemical in the same way that drugs or alcohol do, it shouldn’t be considered addictive. To dismiss it so easily is to miss the point, though. Gambling doesn’t enter your body as a chemical either, and yet we all accept that it’s possible to become addicted to that. 

We could even make a strong argument that people become addicted to social media and gambling for very similar reasons – and the connection may not be accidental. Every time someone spins the reels of an online slots game and wins something on website like Rose Slots, it triggers pleasure sensors in their brain. The brain wants that feeling again, and that feeling can become addictive. Gambling addicts will carry on playing online slots seeking that high because the high has become more important to them than the money. Now think about the way that you refresh the ‘news feed’ of a social media app on your phone. You pull it down, you let it pop up, and you hope that there’s something new and interesting there to see. If there is, you get a little ‘hit’ of pleasure. The mechanism is very similar to the one used to spin those online slots reels. The end result is largely the same, too. 

Because everybody – including the people involved in making online slots and other gambling games available – knows that gambling addiction is real, there are measures in place to stop people from becoming addicted, and getting help when they do. Many online slots websites now have algorithms that detect when your betting pattern changes, or when you’ve logged in at unsociable hours. If they think there’s something wrong, they might freeze your account for a period of time, or provide you with a pop-up notice designed to remind you of what you’re doing and inviting you to think again. When someone spends too long on a social media website, though, there’s nothing. 

As absurd as the idea might sound on first reading, give this some consideration. What if Facebook generated a pop-up after you’d refreshed the same feed for the tenth time, and gently reminded you to take a break every now and then? What if it picked up on the fact that you’d logged on in the middle of the night and asked you if everything was OK? What if it offered you the chance to stop getting notifications for a day or two to give yourself a time-out? All of these things would be easy for Facebook (and other social media platforms) to implement, so why don’t they do it? And why aren’t there louder voices on the media and within the medical profession demanding that they do? 

Perhaps part of the problem is that social media has sprung up so quickly. Only fourteen years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook at all. It appeared almost overnight, and consumed every piece of data it could find about our lives. It put us back in touch with people we hadn’t seen for decades and allowed us a window into their existence. If people share information on it, it can tell us what those people are doing all day, every day, all the time. It’s a digitized form of people watching, and it’s ‘on’ 24/7. Facebook established itself as a huge presence in the lives of billions of people, and regulators and psychologists are still playing catch up now. The truth of the matter is that experts are increasingly convinced that problematic social media use should be treated as a medical problem – they just can’t yet agree on what to do about that problem. 

Perhaps a more organized response will soon come. In mid-2019, a senator in the United States of America proposed the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act – a bill that, if backed and approved, will ban certain features like videos that play automatically, and scrolling that goes on forever. It’s the first of what will likely be several new laws regarding the execution and delivery of social media platforms, but what can we do about people who are showing signs of social media addiction in the here and now? 

While we don’t claim to have the answer to everything, we suggest that the best way to treat social media addiction is similar to the best way to treat alcohol addiction or an eating disorder – with managed changes to intake followed by prohibition. If you or someone you know is struggling to stay away from social media feeds, the first step would be to turn off all notifications. Don’t allow social media to intrude into your life uninvited. Delete the apps from your phone. If being on Facebook or similar social media sites is an essential part of your job, or essential for staying in touch with loved ones, it may not be possible to come away from it completely. Instead, treat it like a diet. You can go on twice a day, for an agreed duration of time, and only at agreed times. Once that time is up, you have to step away. As hard as it sometimes is to realize it in the moment, Facebook and all of the content that it hosts will still be there tomorrow. 

One day – probably quite soon – there will be a universally agreed-upon process for treating someone showing the tell-tale signs of addiction to social media. Hopefully, one day soon, there will also be laws that protect users from some of the more invasive methods that social media platforms use to keep you hooked. Until then, we’re on our own – and so common sense and a supportive attitude are our best weapons.