Addiction is a strong word and it gets thrown around quite a lot and quite easily, which sadly dilutes its power and makes people — including perhaps doctors and psychologists — less sensitive to the concept.
And it seems like nowadays we’re addicted to anything and everything and need a detox from anything and everything, but is social media addiction a real thing?
We’ll look at some social media addiction facts and statistics in a moment, but I’d like us to not get too hung up on the terminology of it.
The truth is, whether we decide to call it addiction, lack of discipline and self-control, or something else altogether, if social media is negatively impacting your life in one way or another, it is a problem regardless of how we decide to label it.
And regardless of what the social media statistics say, I think we can probably all agree that it’s enough to take a look around us and realize there’s something profoundly wrong with the way we interact with one another and with our own selves.
Or maybe it’s just obvious for those of use who’ve had a chance to grow up without social media.
If you were born with a smartphone in your hand, maybe it feels natural to have the urge to pick it up every ten minutes or constantly text and check it while you’re with your friends or at the dinner table, because that’s all you’ve ever known. It’s hard to know you’re in a negative bubble when there’s no other bubble to compare to.
But how bad is it, really?
Social media addiction research is still relatively new, but that doesn’t mean the issues aren’t much deeper than what it might look on the surface. Sometimes it takes time for science and research to catch up. If you have thyroid problems, it may take ten years for your blood work to catch up with your symptoms, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel like sh*t in the meanwhile.
And it’s the same with social media addiction.
Having said that, the research and estimates actually point in the direction of addiction when it comes to social media, and to a staggering degree.
(This is a rather lengthy article, so if you’d like to skip ahead to one of the main topics, please go ahead):
Social Media Addiction Statistics
Let’s take a look at some social media addiction statistics:
- It is estimated that over 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media addiction to a certain degree
- Teens who spend 5 or more hours per day on their smartphones are 71% more likely to have one risk factor for suicide, regardless of the content consumed, according to these teenage social media addiction statistics
- 50% of drivers use their smartphones to check social media behind the wheel and the CDC reports that 9 people are killed and over 1,000 injured every day as a result of smartphone use while driving
- Approximately 1 in 3 divorces is related to social media disagreements
- 15% of people between the ages of 23 to 38 admit they are addicted to social media, with up to 40% between ages 18 to 22
- The number of young adults experiencing sleep issues jumped from 26% to 41% since 2015
- 35% of American teens with low social-emotional well-being have been cyberbullied
If that isn’t enough to scare us, I don’t know what is, but let’s take a closer look at a few smaller studies about social media addiction to get more specifics.
Social Media Addiction Research
Study no. 1
A two-part study conducted on 232 undergraduate students (117 male and 115 female) at a University in China tried to measure how addicted the young students are to social media and how much it affects their mental health and academic performance. The study used the most popular networking sites in China (QQ, Weibo, WeChat), which have a similar degree of popularity as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and measured social media addiction with the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale.
The students received an addiction score from 1 to 5 for 6 social media aspects. 41% scored more than 3 on at least four of the items, and 9.9% scored more than 3 on all 6 items tested. The most interesting part is that 14.7% could be classified as having social media addiction, with an overall score over 18 and a per-item score of at least 3 for at least 4 out of the 6 items tested.
The second study conducted by the same researchers on a different pool of 242 students tried to reduce the students’ addiction through a series of interventions like using a journal, reminder cards or cognitive reconstruction, to see if that has any effect over their academic performance and mental health. The 43 participants who scored higher than 18 on the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale were randomly assigned to a control or experimental group and tested before and after the intervention. In addition to the initial surveys, the participants completed a few other surveys related to sleep, self-esteem and mental health.
The experimental group then participated in an intervention program, which lasted one week and included two stages. The first stage, which lasted around 30 minutes, involved cognitive reconstruction, in which the students were asked to reflect on their social media use, why they use social media, what are the benefits, what are the negatives, and what else they could be doing in that time.
Afterwards, participants were asked to list on a card 5 advantages of reducing social media use and 5 disadvantages of using it excessively. They were asked to take a photo of the card and use it as a phone screen lock, as well as place it on their desks for the following week. In the second part of the intervention, they were asked to keep a daily journal with their thoughts, feelings and behaviors towards social media, including before bed. At the end the participants were asked about the effect of the intervention.
The results saw a significant drop in the level of social media addiction when compared to the control group. The overall score dropped from 20.6 to 14.6 compared to the control group, where the score stayed the same. Furthermore, the participants in the experimental group showed better learning engagement and better emotional state. All the participants praised the intervention and 86% of them expressed their wish to participate in similar studies.
Study no. 2
This study aimed to analyze the relationship between the level of social media addiction and life satisfaction. It was conducted on 612 participants (380 female, 232 male) with an average age of 20 from different grade levels in the Ahi Evran University in Turkey. The participants filled in a survey that measured social media addiction, life satisfaction, and other personal information. For measuring social media addiction, they used the Social Media Addiction Scale-Adult Form developed by Şahin and Yağcı (2017), which is a five-point Likert-type scale including 20 items that can be gathered under two factors (virtual tolerance and virtual communication). Life satisfaction was measured using the Turkish version of the Life Satisfaction Scale (Diener Emmons, Larsen and Griffin, 1985; Köker, 1991). This is a five-item, self-reported, seven-point Likert-type measurement scale (1=strongly disagree to 7=strongly agree). Higher scores indicated higher levels of psychological well-being.
A significant negative correlation was observed between the students’ life satisfaction and social media addiction. The more the participants are addicted to social media, the less they are satisfied with life.
Study no. 3
This research aims to investigate the level of social media addiction in New Media and Journalism students at Üsküdar University in Turkey, who are heavy users of new media tools. The study was conducted on 85 students using a comparative survey model, with the data collected from Social Media Addiction Scale developed by Tutgun-Ünal and Deniz.
The researchers tried to find the answers to several questions, like the level of social media addiction of New Media and Journalism students, what time of day the students use social media and which social media apps they use, as well as if the addiction is differentiated according to gender, daily usage duration, filters or make-up used in photos.
The data was collected through a survey that lasted around 15 minutes and here is what they found:
1. The New Media and Journalism students are a ‘little addicted’ to social media.
2. Students did not differentiate according to gender.
3. Those who use social media between 4 to 6 hours a day are more addicted (medium addicted) than those who use it for less than an hour or between 1 to 3 hours.
4. The mood modification factor of addiction in students who use filters and make-up scored high, which leads to the conclusion that these photo touches make the students feel better.
5. 74.1% check their social media all day long (only a small number do it at specific times during the day, like the morning or before bed).
6. Instagram is their favorite application (98.3%), with almost all students using it (81 out of 85). YouTube comes second with 87.1%, and Twitter third with 78.8%, while Facebook is used by only 55.3% of the students.
Study no. 4
This study examined the relationship between social media addiction and depression among 384 students across three universities in the Khost province of Afghanistan who completed a 46-item questionnaire. The study used the Kimberly Young’s Internet Addiction Test (IAT) and the Centre for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D) to measure social media addiction and depression.
55 of the students were left out of the analysis due primarily to giving an incomplete response (46) or not being subscribed to any social media platform (only 9), leaving the final sample at 329, with a vast majority of them being male (310).
As was expected, the findings revealed a positive correlation between social media addiction and depression, meaning that the higher the level of social media addiction, the bigger the depression. The study also found that the addictive use of social media positively associates with depression equally in developed and in least developed societies.
Just from these studies and statistics alone, it’s starting to become obvious what the negative effects of social media are, but I’d like to dig a little deeper so we can have a more clear outline.
Negative Effects of Addiction to Social Media
Depression, stress and anxiety
A lot of studies have shown a correlation between social media addiction and depression, but more recent studies, like this one on limiting social media time, show that excessive social media use can actually cause depression, and I think it’s no wonder. Between information overload, the constant comparison to other people, and the huge amount of time spent on it and away from other relaxing activities, social media seems more like a ticking anxiety-inducing stress bomb rather than the fun endeavor we imagine(d) it to be.
And as we’ve seen in study no. 4 above, time is a big component of the link between social media use and depression. The more we use it, the more anxious and depressed we feel.
Skewed perception of reality and low self-esteem
Spending a lot of time on social media, especially Instagram and Facebook, leads to us constantly comparing our lives and looks to other people’s, even if we consciously know it’s usually just a highlight reel and nobody’s life is as perfect as it seems.
But constantly seeing images and videos of people who seem happier than we are, and seem to be living better lives than we are, and are more beautiful than we are can only inevitably dig deeper into even the strongest minds and lead to problems of self-image and self-esteem, envy, and eventually a skewed perception of reality where everyone else’s life seems better than our own.
Isolation and lack of connection
Although social media is, well, social, and gives you a good opportunity to catch up with friends, spending more time on it means you spend less time with people in real life, and less time building real connections. There’s nothing like talking to people face to face, and I believe the past year has shown us just how much that is true. Also, talking to people — who maybe aren’t even your friends in real life — almost exclusively online can make you less equipped for natural, flowing in-person communication, which can lead to increased social anxiety, and eventually difficulty to make new friends, which will end up making you feel even more isolated and reliant on social media for communication with other people.
If you’d rather spend time on social media than quality time with your significant other, your parents, or your real-life friends, it’s obvious that at some point your relationships will suffer. Any good relationship needs time input and constant dedication, and it will eventually crumble if you’re not willing to put that work in. And isn’t it the saddest thing that we’re choosing screens over people?
Work and school issues
Just like with relationships, you need to put in constant work if you want to be successful at work or at school. If you get constantly distracted by social media while at work or at school and spend time on social media instead of doing your homework or job, your results will suffer. You’ll lose focus during classes, your grades will suffer, and you might end up losing your job.
The compulsive need to check your phone multiple times before bed can negatively affect your sleep. The blue light from the screen can inhibit the body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which will make it harder to fall asleep and encourage you to keep checking your phone and end up spending hours into the night on your phone. This will obviously affect your day-to-day life, making you feel more tired, anxious, and less focused, and easily fall into a conscious cycle of going to bed late.
Threat to your life and the life of others
As stated above, 50% of drivers use their smartphones to check social media behind the wheel, which is absolutely terrifying. Is it really worth endangering your life and the lives of others over checking a text or notification? Of course not, but sadly that’s how addiction works. It’s not logical and people need help.
36.5% of people feel they have been cyberbullied at least once in their lifetime, and 60% of teens have experienced some sort of cyberbullying. What’s even scarier is that 13% of students have declared cyberbullying made them scared to go to school the next day, with 8% reporting a physical altercation as a result of something that occurred on a social network site, and 25% of teens having gone through an online bullying experience that resulted in a face-to-face confrontation.
Fear of missing out
With everyone and everything begging for your attention on social media, people develop this deep fear of missing out (FOMO) if they don’t check their social media often. This can develop this compulsive need to pick up your phone and check or respond to texts, likes, or comments even while you’re doing something else more important like spending time with a loved one, driving, working or being in school.
If, after reading this, you’re worried you may be a victim a social media addiction, but are not sure, here are some social media addiction symptoms to look out for:
- Anxiousness, irritability or even anger when you’re not able to check social media for some reason
- Checking social media first thing in the morning
- Checking social media while at work
- Feeling the urge to check social media multiple times during the day or even at night
- Constantly checking how your posts perform
- Ignoring your own hobbies in favor of scrolling
- Spending time on your phone while eating or hanging out with friends or family
- Thinking about social media whenever you’re not using it
The thing to remember with social media addiction is that it can be lighter or heavier depending on how much time you spend on it, and the good news is that you can treat it even if you suffer from a severe case.
And the goal here is not to demonize social media and stop using it altogether, but rather to learn how to use it in a conscious way. Social media and digital technology certainly have a lot of positive aspects, and there’s a reason we love them so much, we just have to find ways to make them work FOR us, and not AGAINST us.
So how do we do that? How do we deal with the consequences of social media addiction and what is our recommendation for social media addiction?
How to Break Social Media Addiction
If you want to break your social media addiction, there are a a few simple and more complex steps you can follow:
Delete your social media apps from your phone
Breaking free from addiction is always harder when there’s temptations lurking around. You don’t see an alcoholic keep booze in the house while he’s still going to his AA meetings, and neither should you — keep social media apps I mean — if you know you’ve got a serious compulsion to constantly check your phone. There are some people with milder cases, however, who can handle keeping apps on their phone and just setting time limits, which brings us to our next point.
Set time limits when you can use social media
Set certain time limits when you allow yourself to be on social media and do whatever makes sense for you. In the beginning, maybe it’s a good idea to cut it off completely for a week or two, and then allow yourself to use social media for 30 minutes or one hour a day. But if you’re currently using social media for over 5 hours a day, maybe that’s not exactly realistic. Do whatever feels right for you, and don’t worry if it doesn’t work, you can always switch it up. There is no such thing as failure in recovery, there are only setbacks, but you can always pick yourself up and try again. And use your phone to help you! Most modern devices allow you to see the time you’ve spent on each app, so you can either choose a time limit and stick with it or use an app that cuts you off when you’ve reached your time limit.
Turn off your phone or notifications
If you haven’t deleted your social media apps, completely turn off your phone while you’re at work or doing something important, or simply turn off all your notifications. It will be much less tempting to pick up your phone if it doesn’t buzz.
Go on a social media detox
If you’re up for it. Challenge yourself to stay off social media for a few hours, days, or even weeks. Or choose one social media that you feel is the most detrimental to you and go for a one-app cleanse for even just a weekend. I haven’t been on Instagram for over two months and it feels liberating.
Leave your device out of the bedroom
Well, there are some devices that you can bring in, but definitely keep away your phone or tablet. Or at least place it away from your nightstand so that you don’t feel tempted to reach for it.
Cultivate your real-life friendships and relationships
In this amazing TED talk about addiction, Johann Hari talks about how addiction, in general, stems from isolation and lack of connection. When we have happy, healthy relationships in our lives, there is much less reason to turn to addiction, and I believe the same applies to social media addiction, not just drugs or alcohol. Try to put time into your existing relationships, whether that’s with friends, life partners, or family members, and try to make new friends whenever you have the chance. It may feel impossible at first if you’re riddled with social anxiety, but it will get easier with exercise, I promise.
Establish what’s important for you in life
Think about your values, what you like doing, what your goals are and what’s important for you in life and always keep those at the forefront of your mind and challenge yourself to do something that’s aligned with your goals every single day. Whenever you feel the urge to check social media, ask yourself if it aligns with your goals or if it’s just distracting you in that moment from what you actually want or should be doing. Now that doesn’t mean you should start feeling guilty about using social media, you can definitely allow yourself to have fun and relax with your favorite apps. I firmly believe life should allow room for flexibility, just be mindful about it and do everything with intention. If you want to relax, that’s perfectly normal and advisable, just own it, and be mindful about mindless scrolling and compulsive checking.
Invest your time in hobbies and other activities
If you find yourself with spare time on your hands after decreasing social media use, invest that time into hobbies and other fun activities, like taking a new class, going for a walk, working out, or reading a book. I loved this article on curing social media addiction by reading books and I think it’s a fantastic idea. You can even sprinkle in some books on social media addiction, which might help to keep you motivated on your journey and reinforce why it’s good for you to (partly) cut off social media. I’ll leave some of my favorite titles below.
But before I do that, I just want to say if none of these methods help with your addiction and you’re struggling, please reach out to a professional and to other people that can help you stay on track. Do not be ashamed to ask for help, social media addiction is a real thing, and your feelings, no matter what they are, are valid.
Books About Social Media Addiction
Here are ten of the best books about social media addiction:
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier – As the title suggests, Jaron Lanier suggests the unthinkable, which is to delete your social media accounts, and goes on to describe why you’re overall much better off without them.
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter – If you’re suffering from social media addiction or just spending way too much time on your phone, know that it’s not your fault. In this book, psychology and marketing professor Adam Alter explains how devices are designed to become more and more irresistible and promote behavioral addiction patterns in people.
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen – So many of us think we’re successful multitaskers, but this book is here to prove us wrong. The authors of this book, a neuroscientist and a psychologist, explain why our brains have a limited ability to pay attention, and how we can cope in a high-tech world and find better ways to deal with modern technology without giving up on it.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr – This book is already a classic at the table of debate on how much damage the Internet has done to our brains. The 10-year-anniversary edition includes more thorough research on the effects of smartphones and social media.
How to Break Up with Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life, by Catherine Price – In this book, renowned journalist Catherine Price comes up with life-changing practical tips to develop a healthy relationship with your phone and take back control of your life.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle – A digital enthusiast and researcher for over thirty years, Sherry Turkle highlights how we’re choosing basic connection over conversation in our day-to-day lives and how we can regain a present seat at the table.
The Tech Diet for your Child & Teen: The 7-Step Plan to Unplug & Reclaim Your Kid’s Childhood (And Your Family’s Sanity), by Brad Marshall – Child and adolescent addiction to social media is the highest, so if you’re a parent in need of practical strategies to help your kids stay off their phones and computers and develop a healthy relationship with digital media, this is the book for you.
Facehooked: How Facebook Affects Our Emotions, Relationships, and Lives, by Dr. Suzana Flores – Clinical psychologist Dr. Suzana Flores follows the lives of Facebook users for three years to evaluate the effect Facebook has on our lives, not only revealing the most common problems, but also helping identify and avoid unhealthy social media behaviors.
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa H. Barker – This book offers an in-depth perspective on how the digital age has transformed family dynamics and childhood, and aims to give parents back some control, offering solutions to guide kids in their relationships with devices and social media and build more meaningful connections within the family.
Social Media and Your Brain: Web-Based Communication Is Changing How We Think and Express Ourselves, by C.G. Prado – This book examines how social media and modern communication methods are isolating users socially, jeopardizing their intellectual habits, and, as a result, decreasing their chances of achieving social and professional success.