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How to Identify Social Media Addiction

Social Media AddictionSocial media addiction is a real phenomenon, and it’s become so prevalent among today’s youth that experts are now calling it a “public health crisis,” according to U.S. News & World Report.

In fact, experts at California State University reported in June 2018 that between 5% and 10% of all Americans “meet the criteria for being at risk for social media addiction.” That was before social media channels like TikTok became wildly popular across the United States, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that the rate of social media addiction may have increased even more in recent years.

Here’s what teens and their parents need to know about how to identify social media addiction and what to do if they suspect a social media addiction.

Is Social Media Addictive?

Is it an exaggeration to call social media “addictive”? Not according to experts at Harvard University.

A 2018 Harvard University article explains the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops”—in the words of former Facebook Vice President of User Growth Chamath Palihapitiya—that social media usage creates and how social media interactions activate the same pathways in the brain as drugs.

“these digital social interactions, like successful social interactions in real life, stimulate the same reward pathways in the brain.”
In other words, the mechanism through which social media becomes addictive is because these digital social interactions, like successful social interactions in real life, stimulate the same reward pathways in the brain. In doing so, these social media interactions—such as comments and even “likes”—prompt the user’s brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, produces a sense of pleasure and motivates a person to keep repeating the behavior. Regardless of whether that behavior is taking drugs, gambling, or checking social media notifications for the hundredth time, the way addiction works is the same.

What Causes Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction occurs through the same mechanisms—the rewards pathway in the brain and the neurotransmitter dopamine—as other types of addictions. However, there’s nothing accidental about social media sites affecting the brain this way.

In fact, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower shed light on the way social media algorithms that are driven by engagement not only keep users glued to social media but also spread misinformation and “sensational content,” according to NPR. By rewarding posts that give rise to lots of engagement, social media sites fuel interactions. The numerous notifications that result activate the rewards pathway in users’ brains.

Additionally, the content rewarded by these engagement-based algorithms  “often amplified [teenagers’] insecurities,” Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said during the October 2021 Senate hearing in which Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified. Those insecurities range from body image issues to instances of cyberbullying.

Why would social media platforms adopt algorithms and features that put their own users at risk? The answer, in the words of Facebook whistleblower Haugen, is “astronomical profits.” Social media companies primarily make their money through advertising. A social media platform that keeps users constantly engaging all day, every day makes for more valuable advertising sales opportunities than a site that users may spend a few minutes visiting once per day.

Due to the social media algorithms that experts at Harvard University have called “predatory” and the nature of the way social media interactions stimulate the reward pathways of the brain, users of any age can fall victim to social media addiction. However, these risks are particularly pronounced among children, teenagers, and young adults.

What Are Some Symptoms of Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction encompasses any problematic behavior or troubling change that arises out of social media use and overuse. Some examples of signs and symptoms of social media addiction include:

  • Constantly checking social media notifications—first thing in the morning, as soon as you have free time, and every few minutes throughout the day
  • Checking social media while driving, taking selfies in dangerous situations, and otherwise engaging in social media use in risky situations
  • Seeing noticeable changes in grades and academic performance, which may be due to factors like failing to concentrate on classwork and tests or failing to complete and submit assignments
  • Experiencing relationship problems like cyberbullying and strained family relationships
  • Neglecting family interactions and displaying a loss of interest in other hobbies or real-world interactions in favor of spending time using social media instead
  • Being unable to cut down or give up social media use for even a short time or feeling angry, anxious, or uncomfortable about having to do so
  • Overthinking social media posts
  • Relying on social media interactions for validation of one’s real-life identity
  • Experiencing “phantom” phone sensations, like feeling a phone vibrating in your pocket when there is no notification (and sometimes when the phone isn’t even there)
  • Suffering from new or worsening issues with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-esteem issues, and disordered patterns of eating

If for any reason you, as the social media user, find—or you, as the parent, suspect—that the social media sites are in control of the user and not the other way around, it is a good sign that the use of social media may now constitute addiction or be approaching an addictive level of use.

How Social Media Addiction Affects Your Life

When does social media addiction become problematic? By definition, addiction occurs when the behavior persists despite having negative consequences or a negative impact on the individual’s life.

Using social media purposefully and only on occasion can have a positive effect on your life. However, when you feel an uncontrollable need to be constantly checking your notifications instead of focusing on your life in the real world, social media addiction can completely take over your life.

Some of the ways a social media addiction may affect a person’s life include:

  • Affecting your performance at school or work
  • Interfering in your personal relationships in the real world
  • Obstructing progress toward your personal and professional goals
  • Dissuading you from taking part in the hobbies and activities you previously enjoyed
  • Affecting your mood and your mental health
  • Getting in the way of performing basic tasks, like cleaning and personal hygiene
  • Interfering with your sleep patterns
  • Contributing to disordered eating
  • Falling victim to negative social comparisons that can lower your self-esteem

When the need to engage with social media sites affects your mental, cognitive, and physical functioning, or when it causes you to feel less satisfied with your life and perceive a diminished quality of life, it’s important to take action. A social media addiction won’t simply phase itself out over time. Because of the way social media use affects the brain, it’s likely that untreated social media addiction will continue to get more severe, affecting the user’s life in more and more extensive ways and increasing the likelihood that the user will suffer some sort of related physical harm.

Can Social Media Addiction Be Treated?

If you believe that your child—or yourself, or anyone in your life—is struggling with a social media addiction that is significant enough to affect their lives or their health, it’s important to take action to prevent the situation from getting worse. Social media addiction can lead to serious physical harm, including eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide attempts.

In an emergency situation, like suspected self-harm or suicidal ideation, please seek immediate assistance by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Social media addiction is a serious and complex problem. In many cases, fixing this problem isn’t as simple as your teen finding the “willpower” to cut back on social media use or you, as the parent, restricting Internet access.

It’s critical that an experienced professional intervenes as early as possible to help your child escape this dangerous path. Families affected by social media addiction may turn to a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or clinical social worker who understands the psychological phenomenon of social media addiction. In the event that physical harm, like a suicide attempt, other self-inflicted injuries, or malnourishment due to an eating disorder has already occurred, you should also consult medical professionals who can treat these physical conditions.

Remember, social media companies have allegedly developed their algorithms using addictive psychological tactics to drive their users to spend more time on the platforms. The brain pathways activated by social media usage are the same ones activated by drug use. As such, it’s important that social media addiction is taken just as seriously as drug addiction and that the person struggling with addiction receives sufficient support in their recovery.

Trained and licensed mental health professionals commonly use methods of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) to treat social media addiction on an outpatient basis. Severe cases of addiction may require inpatient treatment. Mental health professionals may also use other treatment methods, including pharmaceutical treatments and other forms of psychotherapy, to treat related conditions like anxiety and depression.

Can You Sue for Social Media Addiction?

No Fee PromiseTreating social media addiction isn’t easy or quick. For many families, the cost of ongoing therapy can pose a financial burden—and that’s assuming that the social media addiction didn’t lead to more extensive physical harm. Treatment for a severe eating disorder, self-harm injuries, or a suicide attempt can be significantly more extensive, physically speaking, and far more expensive, financially speaking.

Young people harmed by social media addiction and their families deserve to be made whole. Already, lawsuits have been filed against social media companies when their features and designs have been alleged to have caused or contributed to matters of serious physical harm, including suicides and self-harm and suicide attempts that led to hospitalization or medical intervention.

Even without accompanying physical injuries, social media addiction can turn children’s lives upside-down. In recognition of the significant harm that can result from addiction, states like California have proposed legislation that, if passed, could allow families to sue social media companies for addiction even in the absence of a physical injury component.

If you have questions about whether your family is entitled to financial compensation, speaking to a social media addiction lawyer can help. It costs you nothing to talk to an experienced attorney with in-depth knowledge of this complex and evolving area of law, and the consultation is free and confidential. Call (866) 778-5500 today to get your questions answered and your case reviewed at no cost.