Understanding social media addiction

July 20, 2023

Social media is everywhere. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok have transformed the way we communicate and connect, share information or ideas, and document our experiences for the world to see. It has captured our attention like nothing before – with the average Canadian spending over two hours a day on social media platforms.

Not only does social media hold our attention, but it is also immensely influential - helping to shape our thoughts and feelings. Many interactions are positive, but there is a risk to spending too much time online. Carefully curated feeds showing the “perfect life”, the ever-increasing amount of product promotion, misinformation, unverified health claims, and now AI generated or altered imagery are all easy examples of content that can be potentially harmful to even the most cautious user.  

With the platforms designed to keep you scrolling, excessive use can happen without even realizing it.

And while social media addiction isn’t currently an official diagnosis, there is overwhelming evidence that overuse can have serious physical and mental health consequences.

When does it become an addiction?

Social media addiction refers to when a person obsessively and compulsively views social media platforms, and the excessive use negatively impacts their daily life. Studies suggest that social media can tap into our brain’s reward system. When we receive likes or other positive interactions, dopamine is released, making us feel good or “rewarded.” Eventually even just the anticipation of these interactions can release dopamine, leading us to crave more time on social media.  

This type of behavioural addiction isn’t always easy to spot. As Dorothy Monkman, counsellor with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program, points out, “In society we are more likely to be alerted to substance misuse than problematic or excessive screen time.

“Like most addictive behaviour, technological addictions are usually a symptom of an underlying issue,” she adds. “The driving force behind most addictions is their usefulness in being a quick fix to cope with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and low self-esteem.”

Addictions to substances or behaviours also arise as a result of their effectiveness at soothing uncomfortable emotions, from boredom to worry.

Possible signs and symptoms of social media addiction include:

  • low self-esteem or self-worth
  • anxiety and depression
  • irritability and mood swings
  • poor sleep patterns
  • poor physical health and hygiene
  • neglecting personal relationships
  • decreased ability to focus or maintain attention

Monkman suggests asking yourself the following questions to assess your use:

  • Do I spend more time online than I planned? And do I need to stay on platforms longer to get the same satisfying results?
  • When I try to cut back on my social media use, do I become moody and irritable?
  • Do I downplay to others how much time I spend using social media platforms and do I try to keep it a secret?
  • Have I tried to cut back my time on my device and have been unsuccessful?
  • Has my usage prevented me from keeping up with relationships, school, or work and resulted in negative feedback from others?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may need to adjust your habits or even seek professional help.  

Understanding how the platforms work

An important part of navigating social media addiction is understanding how the platforms and their algorithms work. An algorithm (a set of computer instructions) is used to determine what content you see on your social media feed, and while specifics around how the various algorithms work aren’t usually disclosed by companies, there are common standard practices that influence your social media experience.  

A few techniques are used to determine what content you see, including:

  1. Recency: The timing of the post matters and platforms prefer to show more recent content to stay relevant.  
  1. Interactions: Actions such as liking, commenting, or sharing are considered meaningful engagement. The more comments, likes and shares a post receives, the more likely it will be sent to users’ feeds. And when you engage with a post – even just to read the comments that others leave – that signals an interest in that topic and increases the likelihood that you will be shown similar content.  
  1. What your friends like: Another tactic that platforms often use is to show you content that your friends have interacted with. So, if that one friend is really interested in watching cute puppy videos, then you might be spotting more in your feed too.

So, while you don’t have total control over what you are shown, you can try to be more mindful in how you interact with what you see. If you are tempted to read the comments on a post about the latest celebrity feud, even if it is not something you are truly interested in, you should remember that you will likely be served similar content in the future.

Healthy social media use

Building a healthy relationship with social media doesn’t have to be a challenge. Here are simple actions to try:  

  • Set time limits: Most smartphones have a feature where you can set time limits or downtime hours for specific apps. A “time out” message displays when you’ve hit your pre-selected limit. These warning messages are a great reminder to log off.
  • Turn off notifications: Another simple way to limit your social media use is to turn off notifications. You will be less tempted to pick up your device if you aren’t being sent notifications from social media platforms.    
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you become more aware of what you are doing in the moment, without judgement. This self-reflection can aid in setting boundaries and refocus your attention so that you can work toward a healthier balance with your social media use.
  • Take up a new hobby: Not only can new hobbies be good for your mental health, but they are also useful in keeping you off your phone. When you focus on doing something you enjoy, it becomes a welcome distraction from passively scrolling through social media platforms.  

“Exchanging our virtual reality for a walk or run outside, dip in the pool, or something as simple as stretching is a small but powerful step in the right direction,” Monkman says.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool that can enhance many aspects of our lives when used with intention and care.  

Counselling support from Manitoba Blue Cross

If you are struggling with your social media use, reach out for help. Manitoba Blue Cross members with Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program coverage can get counselling support. Begin the process here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

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