Psychology Sociology

Social Media Addiction

We now carry our social worlds in our pocket.

Our friend-lists are paper-trails of past acquaintances, giving us a little window to voyeuristically peer into their lives, casually connect, or rekindle a friendship. Paradoxically, we can be alone, yet profoundly connected. Like Riesman’s (2001) “lonely crowd,” we are perpetually other-directed, scanning and finger-scrolling screens, searching for a kind of stimulation that never seems to fulfill our sense that we might not be good enough.

Picturesque portraits in Machu Picchu, selfies in the sand in Santorini, engagements, children, and new homes remind us of how we always seem to be missing out on life’s milestones and adventures. We curate our online identities, attempting to live up to an impossible standard, ever-more concerned with our digital reputation.

Compulsive social media use has become a form of addiction.

Recent neurological research points to the importance of the brain’s reward-circuit. Meshi et al. (2013) used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brains pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry. The researchers concluded that “reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicts Facebook use.” In addition, they found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.

According to Polk (2015), addiction fundamentally results from a prediction error in the brain. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated beyond an expectation, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) releases dopamine, encouraging learning, as held by the Rescorla-Wagner model. Polk emphasizes the role of dopamine as a neurotransmitter associated with craving and reward expectation, putting individuals at risk of compulsive behaviors when reencountering a trigger associated with the potential reward.

This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content. Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.

Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies, even at the peril of our safety and the safety of others while driving. Recent legislation banning the use of hand-held technologies while operating a motor-vehicle is a response to this increasingly prevalent addiction.

Although Facebook is a ‘social’ media platform, it does not necessarily mean it makes us more ‘social’. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-works when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities. Although social media can isolate us through compulsive mindless voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story. There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.

Social media can be social when used in social ways.It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says, “help you connect and share with the people in your life.” Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.

Social media is quickly becoming one of the strongest forces that both unites and divides us.

We need to be conscious of how we use these platforms so they can do the former. A “war-on-drugs” approach is not going to work. The problem is not social media itself, but rather, the way we use social media.

Social media technologies are not necessarily anti-social. As with all new technological developments, we need to learn how to form healthy relationships with them. Social media technologies can be substances of abuse, acting as barriers to authentic social relatedness, keeping us looking outward while remaining trapped inside our own self-centered concern for reputational enhancement. On the other hand, when used healthfully, they can help contribute to human flourishing by connecting us to the people and causes that matter to us most.

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  1. Really well written and observed. This is something I was concerned about in my own life as well as my friends. In my experience social media has made the need to meet up and actually socialise redundant. I now have a long list of friends who I used to be very close to but thanks to Facebook, whatsapp, instagram etc (and, I’m sure in some cases, other factors not linked to social media) I now have a list of cyber-friends instead. The friends I do regularly meet up with don’t have social media accounts (or have limited their accounts to just one). It can be brilliant, but also very dangerous.

  2. Hi Steve, i enjoyed this post.

    In many ways i believe people struggle to communicate with each other one on one and even groups. We no longer introduce ourselves, we now send a friend or follow request.

    In other aspects so many of us are taking pictures or videos but forgetting to enjoy the actual moment.

    All the best,

  3. Very interesting perspective. In many ways, social media can turn into a bad thing if you do not use it properly. Social media can also become dangerous if you are ignorant or absent minded while using it. Technologies are ever changing and we must evolve with it in order to become one with the times. An interesting thing I just discovered about social media is the invisible audience it creates in our networks: the people that are watching, viewing and listening but we do not know are there. A scary thought. Many of the influencers in our networks force other social media users into what we call “the spiral of silence” when people are less willing to talk about a topic or discuss something that they do not feel the majority of the group agrees with. Think about the election, I know my Facebook feed was only of people with radical and controversial speakers than the ones who unsure of their political voice at the time.

  4. I like your take on this topic. Social media addiction is something I think a lot people know of, but aren’t fully aware of. This is something I’m actually trying to work on myself. Thanks for your insight!

  5. Interesting and thought provoking look at the area of social media addiction. I agree with your final comments and I thought of the hyper-connectivity which governs our interactions and how we have allowed technology/social media to limit face-to-face social interactions. We have also watched in living color how the English language has now become abbreviated and chopped up to represent a new language; which oft times its users do not seem to know time and place as it relates to its oral and written usage.

    I share the view as well that Smartphone technologies, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and whatever the next app will be called, are meant to be harnessed by humans to provide the best meaningful communication when interpersonal face-to-face interactions are not possible. I was thinking about introverts and those who genuinely find it difficult in social settings – has this hyper-connectivity helped or hampered them? Albeit, I know of people who are glad that they do not have to interact visually with others. So it can go both ways.

    I wonder if it will be possible to undo the damage which we have done and will do to human communication. As you shared, social media is a double-edged sword: It can unite and/or destroy us.

    Just my thoughts.


  6. Hey Steve,
    I really enjoy reading about your post. I really do think social media has become some sort of addiction and I think it is sad to think about it. Are people really living in the world of likes, follows, and shares? I makes me think back to my childhood where we didn’t have social media and we would actually enjoy each other’s companies. This was the way of life, not all the materialistic social media world. This year, I made a bet to try and not use social media such as facebook, instagram, and snapchat and try and see how this will change my life for the better. Hopefully I can start focusing on what’s really important and set my life back in track and stop wasting my time scrolling through my newsfeed. Thanks for the good read!

  7. Steve, I’ve just started reading Michael Lewis’ “Next: The Future Just Happened”. Anything by Lewis is generally a good read, often about the financial markets; however, he often takes somewhat of an end-around approach. Next, published i n 2001, describes the early days of the Internet; however, it fits in with how many people’s persona change, when they are on-line.

  8. I must say your blog is thought provoking. I agree, our use of social media makes us feel ‘close’ to complete strangers, and distances us from our ‘real’ lives. I have to think that the social media addiction is more prevalent among those under 30. (Am I right?) I’m older, as are my friends (50w-70s) and we do not seem to have the same attitude toward social media that say college students do. I don’t believe the internet is going to cause the downfall of mankind, but it isn’t helping us either. So what’s the answer? Education? Sure. But education is not valued in the US.

  9. Great post, Professor Rose. Social Media is anything, BUT…social. And the very idea of using it, as a “Middleman”, separates Sapiens from Homos. And that middleman moves its commissions and, thus, a piece of the spontaneity, congeniality, and the give-and-take which signifies our very humanity.

    1. Thank you! It is always nice to see your comments. So you don’t think there is any possibility of having a form of technological interaction that is also humane?

      1. Steve, I believe that some humanity is lost when interaction flows through an intermediary. We have enough problems, even when dealing in a direct human-to-human situation, where we cannot agree on the ground rules–religious-secular, stimulus-0austerity, Red Wings-Canadienes, etc.

      1. Tbh
        comparing my life to others lives on social medias and my looks etc..
        It takes up so much time when I can be putting my time to doing things I should be doing- things that will advance me and my family in the real world. 🙂
        It is also rather brain numbing. I liken it to watching reality T.V. ha ha! I’m still addicted.

  10. I’ve long believed in social media addiction. I live it everyday, and can’t escape it. It’s a never ending cycle that I feel like is forced upon me by my teachers, mentors, mangers, and most of all my peers. My generation the millennials is obsessed with fame and fortune. Networking is the buzz right now. The opportunities social media has to offer from a business perceptive is too good to turn down. Even if you think social media doesn’t or won’t effect you you’re wrong. The only way to avoid “negative” social media addiction is to cut out the people in your life addicted to social media, unless they recognize the issues. Perhaps they will change their ways, but that’s rarely the case. It’s only going to get worse. It’s a downward spiral as technology advances. The affects of social media on relationships is devastating and sickening. To cope learn to not stress over things, beyond your control.

    1. Hi Kayla, It looks like you have been really struggling with your need to use social media, especially due to all of the social pressure from peers, mentors, and managers. What is it about social media that contributes to this level of stress? I agree that the focus on presenting oneself as rich and famous is a real problem, due to its impact on one’s need to constantly think about identity management and reputation enhancement. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  11. i am so addicted, like beyond saving type of addict
    thank you for sharing, it helped me see the problem

  12. It is a great time to analyze this current phenomenon. What if the real world to a large percentage of the population has become insignificant. What matters is the online identity and the only valid connections are therefore online personas creating a fantasy relationship.

    Hence did Trump win because he has millions of twitter followers that feel personally connected to him, or because he is a good businessman. Why is it that CIA reports on global events can be dismissed but a large amount of republicans believe only what Trump tweets.

    I think social media was great up until mass addiction status. I don’t know of any addiction that doesn’t destroy what good was produced initially.

      1. It is a complicated problem I think. Everybody has to find their own meaning and what level they want to interact with the world.
        Hence those who may be deluded by the Trump role model that tweeting gains people power – well like all things of egotistical fantasy it will fail. Their lives will fall apart. Families and relationships will dissipate as nobody can stay in a fantasy forever. Sick of the pretense don’t we all long to stop the noise, confusion, the not knowing what will happen next in our relations?
        I think just a matter of time and people will long for something more real. But the media, I think has more positive in giving us all sorts of views truth or fabrications we all need to sort out our `what seems right for us.’ We would hardly be evolving without the media. We just need to live gracefully through those yucky teenage years.

  13. Very nice explanation of another behavior which can become just another substance of abuse. There are generational differences in how we use social media and parenting should also now include recommendations on how to introduce social media and all technology to your baby. Whew, another thing of which to be wary! Everything in moderation still seems the best rule for, well EVERYTHING!

    1. Yes! Moderation is key. It is important we limit social media use among children, and wait to introduce young children to these technologies since it can impact their cognition negatively due to the high levels of stimulation.

  14. Because of Facebook’s promise of connecting us, I have lost personal contact – once possible through private emails and phone calls – with distant relatives and friends. Our minute-by-minute communication has become ubiquitous and impersonal.

    1. I completely agree! There is a lack of mystery. The contact can seem less ‘sacred’/ personal as the level of casual following rises without the personal communication.

  15. I love how you wrote about both the potential advantages and disadvantages to social media. Some people seem to have rather extreme opinions about it, but to me it always appeared to be a mixed tool.

    I hope you’re enjoying the holidays!

    1. I’m with you on that. As a person with bipolar I find it incredibly useful to discuss sensitive issues anonymously with a fantastic online community. At it’s best social media is amazingly democratic, but ensuring the population is educated and also feel welcomed in “actual” society would also seem important. To demonise a form of communication itself would seem to dismiss the importance we all have (importantly legislators, employers, unions, voters…) in constructing a society that people want to engage with.

  16. The addictions to interactions online is becoming a serious problem these days, as these social network systems become flourishing everywhere, and, people are growing more and more reliant on establishing their social contacts online, without realizing, that face-to-face interactions are what’s the most real.

  17. I agree. I go off social media every now and then. When I am working, I keep my phone away. Why? Because I find myself to be a part of many WhatsApp groups, and I find them to be intrusive.

  18. The technology may in some abstract way be neutral, but the corporations behind them are insistent pushers – regularly sending links to potential new “friends”. Some algorithms even can’t believe I have no friends. But I do appreciate your blog, Steve

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