Is Social Media Addictive?

Is Social Media Addictive?

By Holly Willard, LCSW, RPT Clinical Director at James Mason Centers for Recovery.

People are inherently social by nature.  Connection is vital to our survival (emotional and physical). If we are outside the herd, we are more vulnerable to attacks.  Our brains are wired to connect.  In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes that there are parts of our brain that are only activated by face-to-face contact with others.

The importance of social interactions became most evident in orphanages where the mortality rate was as high as 30-40 percent due to failure to thrive.  The infants physical needs were being provide for but their body shut down because they were not getting their emotional/social needs met.  Infant ICU’s have seen drastic improvement rates by using simple touch (skin-to-skin stimulus). John Bowlby’s research demonstrated that having a healthy attachment as an infant and child is an essential part of learning how to form relationships with others.

Getting older does not change these attachment need; it just changes how most of us express it.  Sue Johnson’s groundbreaking couple’s therapy work highlights the importance of getting our attachment needs met as an adult and that we do not have to stay stuck in our unhealthy relationship patterns.   Touch is an important emotional and physical need.  The Salt Lake Tribune ran a fascinating article on August 12, 2015 by Amy McDonald about the popularity of nonsexual cuddling parties in Utah that people attended to fulfill their need for human connection and touch.

Sometimes that need for human contact is also expressed through social media. According to Matthew Lieberman, a Harvard graduate who is now a lead researcher on the subject and a professor of psychology, psychiatry, and bio-behavioral studies at UCLA, the brain network being used when checking social media is the same one used when we are taking a break from work.   In other words, our brains wiring leads us to seek out other people to relax.

Just looking at pictures of other people causes a great deal of activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Activity in this part of the brain increases your ability to accurately perceive others and quickly decide which emotions they might be feeling. As Matthew Lieberman puts it, our brains are always trying to reset themselves to think about other minds. Looking at social media, apparently, actually helps with that process

What about the very real fear many people (especially parents) have about social media addition? Experts say it’s not that simple. If someone spends a lot of time on social media, that certainly can be categorized as social-media overuse, but throwing in the “addiction” term is more a way to escalate the argument than it is an accurate representation of what is going on.

Addiction has a technical definition and is a very specific diagnosis for a specific problem. According to Mark Fabbri of South University, addiction has a lot to do with compulsion. Someone feels a compulsion to consume something or to act in a particular way to the point where it significantly interferes with the ability just to live. The Merriam-Webster dictionary makes this definition a little clearer; the more a person engages in addictive behavior, the less reward is associated with it, and when the person stops the addictive behavior, the person goes through the physiological symptoms of withdrawal. That withdrawal is a difficult experience.

Mark Fabbri has a list of behaviors that are widely considered to be addictive: substance abuse, for example, as well as sex, gambling, and time on the Internet. It’s well to remember that some of these addictions haven’t been accepted as addictions for very long, and there may well come a time when the definitions of what constitutes an addiction are narrowed again.

The problem with automatically labeling too much time on social media or the Internet as an addiction is that if we apply the word with too generous a hand, it becomes meaningless. Not every person who engages in addictive behavior is an addict. Is spending too much time doing anything a problem? The answer, clearly, is yes. But the amount of time spent per day on something is not by itself indicative of addition.

The behavior changes from overuse to addiction when an individual is not ability to function adequately. A woman who spends so much time on, say, Facebook and loses her job really might have an addiction. If she is able to balance her involvement with Facebook with other aspects of her life, then she is probably not addicted.

As Adam Singer observed in “Social Media Is (2010)” blog article, that is still fully relevant today, spending too much time on the Internet is not a cause; it’s a symptom. To fix the problem, the best idea is to diagnose the cause before you start talking about how to solve whatever the real problem actually is.

Social media is young enough that we really don’t know exactly the long-lasting effects. What is already clear is that this generation is experiencing a huge shift in the way members communicate. Realistically speaking, people who are digital natives have always had electronic devices around and are more likely to communicate by text message than by phone call or face-to-face interaction. What that means in turn is the definition of normal behavior has changed, and it is unfair for someone who has barely gotten accustomed to the idea of texting to really understand the role texting plays in the life of his children and grandchildren.

What does the shift in communication mean in terms of actual numbers? According to an article written by Shea Bennett on December 30, 2014:

  • Experts estimate that there are 2.03 billion people who use social media. That is a full 28 percent of the world.
  • People usually don’t all spend their time in just one place. The following statistics don’t talk about overlap (such as how many Facebook users also use LinkedIn, for example), but as of December 2014 there were 1,320 million on Facebook, 343 million on Google+, 300 million on LinkedIn, 271 million on Twitter, and 230 million on tumblr.
  • How old you are is a good predictor for how much time you spend. Between the ages of 15 and 19, people tend to spend three hours or more on social media; between the ages of 20 and 29, the number goes down to a couple of hours per day.
  • There are 1.23 billion people who are on a social media website for an average of 17 minutes per day.
  • Some people (18 percent) can’t stay away from Facebook for even a few hours.
  • 16 percent of people use Twitter or Facebook as their news source
  • Those who use the Internet at work are usually not doing work during that time. Some 60 to 80 percent of the time they are essentially relaxing instead. A fourth of the workday is sometimes spent browsing social media instead of working.

What can we do while experts figure out what the consequences of using social media actually are for all of us?

  • The best idea is to limit the time we allow ourselves and our children to spend on social media. Spending too much time might not rise to the level of an addiction, but it still isn’t good for you.
  • Computers should be in shared areas of the home to monitor what the child is watching and how much time is spent on line. Children need help developing boundaries about how much social media usage is appropriate.
  • Social media doesn’t have to isolate. It also can expand our individual world and give us opportunities we would not have otherwise. Used in that positive way, social media does offer everyone an opportunity to express thoughts and opinions and to reach out to others.
  • Encouraging children to join in family activities may become more difficult as they enter the separation-and-individuation stage that is such a crucial part of growing up, but your job as a parent is to continue to create opportunities to connect. Projecting your fears about addiction won’t help, instead have conversations where they feel accepted and validated.
  • You aren’t a child anymore. But you, like everyone else, still need the benefits of human touch and social connection. You are not going to get that from your keyboard, so take time each day to reengage in the meaningful relationships in your life.