Social media usage has become a way of life for most young adults, with over 2.19 billion users signed up to Facebook alone as of 2018.
Meeting new people online – and even new partners – is the modern way to conduct relationships, but imagine if you had a friend or partner who constantly talked to you, was in your face 24/7 and who even managed to get inside your brain while you slept, perhaps urging you to wake up and start chatting again? That is exactly the relationship many users are having with social media platforms – and to the extent they are being termed social media addicts.
The need to be liked
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn, are perhaps the most well known social media platforms. But now almost every website has a forum or meeting place – or enables users to leave comments and interact with other users, spawning a generation of web users who feel increasingly compelled to leave their mark online whenever the opportunity arises. This is further encouraged by rankings, ratings, likes and shares, all helping to build a picture of how popular a user is.
The cult of personality is a mark of success online and the urge to be successful online has never been greater – there is now a generation of social media users who have never known life without an online profile and all that that brings.
Addicted to likes
A growing awareness of how social media can hook users into becoming a slave to ‘like’ has prompted research into how addictive social media is. Scientists have found that, just as praise and popularity in real life can generate a happy glow in people, the buzz getting a ‘like’ online generates results from similar chemical responses in the brain.
When we are happy and our self-esteem is boosted, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine and levels of serotonin also rise. These two chemicals in the brain are known as the “happiness” chemicals. Dopamine levels rise to their highest when we are in love and feel all dizzy and excited – the buzz you get from a great work out at the gym is also due to dopamine and serotonin.
It is a great feeling and it is now known to be addictive to the point that an entire generation of young social media users is already addicted or is in danger of becoming addicted to ‘likes’ online, fuelling a need to be constantly checking social media websites. But just as ‘like’ makes us feel good about ourselves and want more, it can also lead us into a darker place.
Social media and depression
There are have been several reports in the media about how young adults have struggled with depression, even to the point of taking their own lives, with social media use thought to have played a role in their condition.
Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology finds that a major factor in the link between social media use and depression is the fact that viewing other people’s lives online can lead us to make unfavourable judgements about our own lives. Young people can be particularly affected when they see their peers apparently having a much better time than they are or appearing to be more popular. Young adults have even been known to exaggerate their lives just to appear more popular and successful on social media. It is when viewing social media leads to feelings of inadequacy, failure or unpopularity in an individual that depression can result.
What is depression?
Depression is caused by changes in the brain – and often occurs after a major trauma in an individual’s life, such as bereavement, job loss, divorce or moving house and leaving behind friends. The hippocampus, where memories are stored and which also controls sleep, appetite and sex drive, shrinks when people are depressed – as a result, memory recall can be affected, sleep is disrupted, sex drive can diminish and eating patterns can change. Feelings of isolation and loneliness develop.
Social media in itself aims to make people more connected – but it cannot protect users from feeling the same distress or depression they might feel in real life when a relationship ends, for example. Online, if a friendship breaks down, or a friend “unfriends” another without explanation, the same hurt and low mood as happens in real life occurs.
That Avatar might protect your identity or appearance online – but behind the tech is a person with real feelings.
Social media is also accessible and relationships can move at a faster pace than they might in real life, heightening the experience very quickly – and for the generations of users who have never known a life without social media, it can be especially hard when their virtual world of friendship and emotional support dumps them back in the real world.
Seeing through the deception
Social media platforms make their money somehow – and that somehow is most often by targeted advertising. But sometimes things can take a sinister turn online – there has been a public backlash since the Cambridge Analytica debacle, when Facebook users discovered their data was being harvested. For thousands of social media users, it felt like a betrayal, given they had been led to believe in some kind of social media Utopia where everything was free and innocent of deception. Individuals and corporates can make the social media world a very challenging and murky place to be at times, however, and it is little wonder people at first get addicted – and then end up depressed.
4 tips for managing social media addiction
The joy of social media is that the user should be able to control it and not be controlled by it. If social media seems to have its hooks into you, here are a few tips on how to put it back in its box and take back control.
- Try and limit social media activity to a certain number of hours a day – and if possible, set the time when you will access it. There is nothing cooler than being too busy to check up on everyone else’s life every minute of the day – you have your own life and it will not be half as interesting as it could be if you are busy hearing about what everyone else is up to.
- Find new things to do – the big hook with social media is that it is free and easily accessible. But tech that stops you from having real experiences in the real world is counterproductive to having an interesting, healthy and fulfilling life, so join a five-aside-football team, find a climbing wall or sign up for a dance class and meet some new people in the real world.
- Monitor how social media makes you feel – if the thought of being without it or the thought of logging onto to it makes you feel anxious or panicked, switch it off for a day, or for longer if you can. Once you have managed to do this, when you return, social media will not seem such a big beast to deal with –and you will see that life goes on without constantly scrolling through updates.
- Have more than one set of friends online – it is tempting to gather all your friends in the same place, but try to have different groups of friends on different platforms, so that if one social media circle proves problematic, you can simply socialise online elsewhere for a while. Making new friends on different social media platforms can help you build a network of contacts and friends that could help you get a job, meet a partner, or become interested in a new hobby and expand your social circle so that you do eventually have the sort of life your online friends admire.
The science behind social media addiction
In November 2017, the founding president of Facebook, Sean Parker, admitted that the social media platform was intended to be addictive and was developed to exploit ‘a vulnerability in human psychology’ – the dopamine hit whenever we receive a ‘like’, which keeps us coming back for more.
In 2016, researchers at Pitt’s Centre for Research on Media, Technology and Health also discovered that, out of a group of study participants aged 19-32, those who used social media more frequently on a weekly basis were 2.7 times more likely to develop depression – possibly because those with underlying depression might be more likely to use social media more often, but also because of the feeling among users of not ‘living up to idealised portraits of life’ displayed online.
With depression now the leading cause of disability globally, according to the World Health Organisation in 2015, it is surely now time for all of us to take a rain check on whether we actually ‘like’ what social media is doing to our lives and our health and relationships.