When we think about addiction, we often think about drug and alcohol use. However, research is clear that individuals can get a similar “high” from using the internet, including social media.
Scrolling through social media and browsing the internet are popular activities that most of us engage in without any problem or issue. However, there is a small percentage of users that become addicted to social media sites and engage in excessive or compulsive use.
In its true definition, internet or social media addiction is characterized by being overly concerned about social media, feeling compelled to access the internet or log on to our social media accounts, and spending so much time scrolling that it impairs other areas of our life such as school, employment, leisure activities, and relationships.
Internet Use, Social Media, and the Brain
Due to the effect that social media and internet use has on the brain, these activities can be both physically and psychologically addictive. More specifically, when an individual gets a notification such as a “like,” “breaking news,” or an update on a sports score, the brain receives a rush of dopamine which causes us to feel pleasure. Social media and the internet provide immediate access to information and endless amount of instant rewards in the form of attention from others for fairly minimal effort.
Social media use becomes problematic when someone views social networking sites as an important coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. For these people, social media provides continuous rewards they may not be receiving in real life. As a result, they end up engaging in the activity more and more.
There is also a real phenomenon referred to as the fear of missing out (FOMO). Due to the thoughts and feelings associated with this, we often feel compelled to stay engaged with our social media sites and the internet to ensure we are “in the loop” for what we consider important.
While few of us will ever develop an addiction to the internet or social media, we could all benefit from being mindful about our own use and considering if there are areas where we need to cut back.
Signs and Symptoms of Internet and Social Media Addiction
Losing Track of Time
You often intend to go on the internet or check Facebook for just a few minutes, but you’re still scrolling a half-hour later.
Research suggests that more than 20 hours of personal internet/social media use per week constitutes an addiction.
After checking your phone or social media, you access it again a few minutes later without much thought to see if there are any updates. This may also occur when you are out socializing and you access your phone/device numerous times throughout your time with others.
Access to the internet/social media regulates your mood and when you do not have access to your device, you become moody and irritable until you get your next “fix.” This is often referred to as withdrawal.
Impact on Relationships
Friends and family become irritated or frustrated that you spend more time on social media than you do with them. You may be accused of spending more time with your “Facebook family” rather than your real one. You may also begin to lie about your use or go into another room or outside so that you can access the internet/social media in private.
Impact on School or Employment
Due to accessing the internet for personal reasons or being on your social media accounts longer than intended, you do not complete assignments on time or forget work that needs to get done. You may find that you are doing more online browsing than actual work.
Strategies to Address Internet/Social Media Addiction
1. Go on a Digital Detox
Begin to reduce the amount of time that you plan to access the internet/social media. You can do this by either setting specific times in the day when you allow yourself to go on the internet/social media (e.g., over the lunch hour). There are also apps available that allow you to set a time limit on your social media use – when that time limit is up, you cannot access the internet/social media site until it resets the next day.
2. Spend Time Away From Screens
One of the strategies for reducing technology use to acceptable levels is to set aside certain times of the day that are technology-free (meal times and before bed are good starting points). This may include no longer accessing the internet/social media after a certain time. For example, all internet use is done each night at 8:00 PM and not accessed again until 7:00 AM.
3. Establish a Contingency Plan
Build in a plan around only accessing the internet/social media once you have accomplished something. For example, you only get to access the internet/social media after you do one hour of school work, get groceries, water the plants, go for a walk, etc.
4. Reduce Your Contact and Access List
One way to spend less time online is to reduce your number of friends/contacts on social networking sites, delete unused apps, and unsubscribe from online sites that have few benefits or send too many notifications. Also, delete game apps that are time consuming.
While few of us will ever develop an addiction to the internet or social media, we could all benefit from being mindful about our own use and considering if there are areas where we need to cut back. This will contribute to our overall well-being and mental health!
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