The majority of people use some form of social media to stay connected. But recent studies show the addictive nature of social media harms our mental and emotional health. Here’s why the apps are so dangerous.
Whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, or TikTok, most people have some form of social media. We use it to stay in touch with friends, provide updates on big life moments, and find entertainment. But data suggests social media use can be harmful to individuals’ mental health and productivity.
Social media use has been linked to eating disorders, depression, and anxiety, especially among teenagers. Plus, it’s addictive. While most people are probably compulsive rather than addicted users, it’s easy to get sucked into the endless feedback loop that social media provides. After all, it’s designed to hook people’s attention.
But what exactly makes social media so addictive? And how can this affect a person’s well-being? Let’s take a look.
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What Makes Social Media So Addictive?
Much of what people know today about addiction can be credited to psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Skinner showed through a series of experiments that providing someone a reward can reinforce behavior. He tested this with rats — every time the rodents hit a lever, they received a food pellet. This reward encouraged the rat to continue hitting the lever. The behavior became even more ingrained when Skinner made receiving the reward unpredictable — only occasionally providing food pellets when a rat hit the lever. Skinner called this approach intermittent positive reinforcement.
But what does this have to do with social media? Developers have used Skinner’s research to design their apps to be addictive, says Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and a leading expert on how media affects child health and development. When someone posts a photo to Instagram or Facebook, the reward comes in the form of the person’s peers liking the photo. And because receiving “likes” is unpredictable — a person doesn’t know how many likes, if any, their photo will receive — this uncertainty encourages users to check the app more frequently to see whether they’ve been rewarded. Much like the rats pressing a lever hoping for a treat.
“The problem with social media is that because people present curated lives, teenagers can feel they don’t measure up.”
This system works because the rewards trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for a person’s feeling of craving. When it’s released, it essentially tells your brain, ‘I like that. Do that again,” says Christakis. And intermittent rewards, such as receiving an unpredictable number of “likes” on a photo or Tweet, release more dopamine than predictable ones.
There’s another reason this can be addictive. In his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, author Cal Newport writes that people have evolved to crave approval from their peers. When a person “likes” someone’s photo, they are providing them a sense of validation. Of course, the opposite is also true — if people don’t provide that validation, a person can begin to feel distressed.
“It can develop an urgent need to continually monitor this ‘vital’ information,” Newport writes.
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How Do I Know Whether I’m Addicted to Social Media?
Christakis says the definition of digital addiction can vary depending on who you ask. But he generally defines addictive behavior as anything that interferes with daily living. When it comes to using social media, most people are likely compulsive users — they check their email or phone apps even when it’s not necessary, but it doesn’t interfere with their ability to hold down a job or maintain relationships.
“Checking your email or checking your phone 80 times a day would be compulsive use,” he says. “When it starts to impede on those and you prefer a behavior or pursue a behavior to the point where it becomes destructive, that’s addiction.”
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How Does Social Media Affect Your Health?
Using social media can have negative effects on a person’s mental and emotional health as well as their ability to concentrate, says Christakis. Because the apps are designed to encourage compulsive use, they can disrupt a person’s ability to concentrate. And again, teens, in particular, are especially vulnerable to these impacts.
“Teenagers and preteens, as part of their developmental stage of life, are trying to figure out how they compare to others,” says Christakis. “The problem with social media is that because people present curated lives, teenagers can feel they don’t measure up.” He said social media use is linked to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. It’s especially hard on teenage girls, who compare the way they look to curated images on the apps.
“Preteens and teens don’t have the wisdom that other people’s lives aren’t as perfect as people make them seem,” says Christakis.
The solution? It depends. In his book, Newport suggests ways people can rethink their social media use and become a “digital minimalist” by limiting the use of the apps.
“We treat this thing like it’s not addictive, and it is, we should acknowledge that.”
Christakis also says it’s important that parents model the behavior they want their children to emulate — this includes their own social media use. For starters, parents should set boundaries surrounding when and how often they’re on their own apps. For instance, don’t bring your phone to the dinner table or use it while engaging in a conversation.
Ultimately, Christakis says it’s important that we treat our phones as addictive devices because they are. “We treat this thing like it’s not addictive, and it is,” he says. “We should acknowledge that.”
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