What makes social media addictive?
Updated: Sep 3
"I have a thousand friends and no one to hang out with."
"Come on," you'll say. "Everybody does it, so, no way it could be an addiction."
Social media have brought about a real revolution in human communication, which has both good and bad sides. When was the last time you saw people in a waiting room, on a bus or on a train talking casually to each other? Most of them are on their phones, thumbing the endless scrolling wheel of news, videos, and photos on social media. They have made it much easier to reach anyone and everyone, and through them, we can connect to people we may have lost touch with and other like-minded people around the world. We have easy access to important and irrelevant information, and it's free. Well, we only let the organizers market our personal data in return, so they can get to know us better and sell us things.
However, social media has elements that can turn into a real addiction. Infinite scrolling and short intense content stimulate the brain in a similar way to gambling or video game addictions, by secreting dopamine in the brain, which is the basis for various addictions. Addictions form when we repeat activities that change brain chemistry and bring relief from unpleasant feelings. The changes tend to become more entrenched over time, and there's craving - the need to repeat this activity more and more often, and with greater intensity.
Is it an addiction or just a waste of time?
The main problem with overusing social media is that it can waste a lot of time. This time is our life, and we take it away from other important activities that we neglect. The inventor of s it endless scroll, Aza Raskin, calculated that more than 200 000 lives a day are lost to this activity, and repented that sometimes what is easiest is not the best.
But just a waste of time, as bad as it is, does not warrant the diagnosis of addiction. (See Blog 11 signs of addiction) The criteria for addiction are met, if you are:
obsessively thinking about doing it,
unable to stick to the appointed time,
playing under inappropriate circumstances and despite serious harm. Research has shown that 77% of people use social media while at work, wasting hours. (say, failing at school),
your browsing time keeps escalating,
you feel restlessness and emotional agitation if you can't connect,
you're lying and hiding it.
What are the consequences?
The excessive use of social media is profoundly changing the ways we communicate and the values young people aspire to. The virtual world is limitless, and standards of beauty or sport that are unattainable only for the exceptionally endowed are suddenly becoming the standard by which everyone is measured, to their detriment. This deepens their feelings of low self-worth and depression, and in turn, stimulates dangerous exaggeration in attaining unrealistic beauty and performance standards. Constantly bombarding the brain with dopamine-inducing stimuli causes a craving for similar short bursts of intense stimulation. Schools are already noticing that young people are finding it harder to focus on longer and less dynamic content and that they do not have the patience or concentration to do so because they are used to having everything ready and digested on their plates.
One of the serious consequences is that our worlds are being "trapped in bubbles", as the algorithms keep loading us with information that we dwell on for longer. When we base our decisions on biased information, we can uncritically fall prey to fake news and marketing ploys, as was seen during the corona epidemic
What is addictive in social media?
The infinite scroll was invented by mathematician Aza Raskin in 2006, who wrote a computer program that loads new content as soon as you scroll down the screen, and so on ad infinitum. It was later shown to be as addictive as a virtual slot machine.
Short, intensive content, one after the other, selected by an algorithm based on the similarity of the content.
Intermittent conditioning that creates the expectation that the next post will be even better, and we are afraid of missing out.
Stress, in so-called doom-scrolling, is the active search for catastrophic news and bizarreness.
Imposing unattainable standards, for example on body image, which can lead to morbid anorexia or unattainable perfectionism, depression, and suicide.
Fake news and whole systems of deception that can be heavily influenced by hate propaganda.
Hate speech: the Internet is seemingly anonymous so it's easy to project and vent your negative feelings on people and get away with it.
Wasting time, because we're tempted by the anticipation of what we'll see next.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.