In most cases, scrolling through social media is an innocent leisure activity, but sometimes it ends in a true addiction. A social media addiction is a behavioral addiction that is characterized as an uncontrollable urge to use social networking sites, to the extent that other important activities in your life suffer. Some people would be more susceptible to this type of addiction, for example, people who are narcissistic or have low self-esteem.
Reward in the brain
Studies show that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from social networking sites causes the reward area in the brain to trigger the same kind of chemical response as drugs. You can even compare it to a dopamine shot that is injected directly into you. Because of that effect on the brain, social media is addictive, both physically and psychologically. For example, if you get a "like", the dopamine level in the brain will rise. That means that the brain will be rewarded and that it will positively associate the drug, in this case the social media activity.
These kinds of instant rewards are endless on social media: you get attention from others for minimal effort. As a result, the brain reprograms itself and people start to crave likes, retweets and other reactions. In addition, the reward centers in the brain are most active when people talk about themselves. In the non-virtual world, people talk about 30 to 40 percent about themselves, but on social media this easily becomes 80 percent.
The use of social media becomes problematic when someone sees social networking sites as an important coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. The networking sites offer these people a constant reward that they don't get in real life, so they end up looking up the sites more and more often. As a result, one begins to neglect relationships in real life, avoid responsibilities at work or school, and also experience physical problems, which in turn can erode a person's mood. To alleviate that negative mood, one will focus even more on social media. This cyclical pattern will repeat itself over and over again, making one more and more dependent on social media.
Here are things that may indicate that you're addicted to social media:
- You are more active on Facebook or Instagram than you want
- You get out of bed at night to check new messages
- You immediately look when you hear or see that a new message is coming in
- Friends or family say you spend too much time on Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp
- You secretly check your photos or messages or you keep quiet about what you do on social media
- You feel restless when you can't access Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp
- You check messages or photos in dangerous places, for example in traffic
- You are sleep deprived because you spend too long with social media in the evening
- You're struggling to quit social media
- Your daily work (school, work, household) suffers from the time you spend on social media
- You get angry or react irritated when someone disturbs you while communicating with your friends online
If you suspect you have a social media addiction, consider a digital detox. That is a period in which you spend significantly less time using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers.
These can be simple steps, such as turning off sound notifications or imposing yourself to check social media sites only once an hour. For example, you can also limit your screen time to certain periods during the day and put your phone away at other times, such as while eating or at night, so that it doesn't disturb your sleep.
These measures allow you to focus your attention on physical social contacts again, and will reduce the dependence on networking sites.