Social Media: The Fine Line Between Entertainment and Addiction

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Do you feel anxious when you’ve forgotten your phone at home, even if you are still reachable? Do you mindlessly scroll through social media feeds whenever you have a free minute, adding up to hours spent on a platform? Do you find yourself going through your list of likes, even hours after you’ve posted something? If so, you are not alone.

We obsessively scroll through our feeds late at night, leading to poor-quality sleep caused by the blue light emitted from our smartphones. Then, as soon as we wake up, we check our phones again, leaving us distracted and assuaged with feelings of self-doubt, envy, and FOMO before we’ve even had our morning cup of coffee. Not to mention all of the times we scroll out of boredom and pure habit, robbing us of quality time with our kids, partners, families, and friends. Nowadays, we rarely ever truly “live in the moment”.

While technology has undoubtedly made our life easier, social media has taken over it.

While technology has undoubtedly made our life easier, social media has taken over it. We are now always connected — even when we don’t want to be. In fact, in 2018 alone, the average person was on social media for over two hours a day. Even Prince Harry — whose Instagram account broke the world record for the fastest growth to one million followers — warned, “Social media is more addictive than drugs and alcohol, yet it’s more dangerous because it’s normalized and there are no restrictions to it.”

Indeed, because social media isn’t monitored, its harmful effects on our health often go unchecked. “The fact that there are no laws or boundaries monitoring what is and isn’t acceptable means that social media has become ingrained within society, which is especially worrying because those most at risk from mental health issues are impressionable young people,” says Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai. And that’s the crux of the problem.

Talking about addiction in this context might seem like a stretch, but not by much. According to Dr. Sarah Rasmi, a licensed psychologist and the founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre, “Research estimates that a small percentage of the population — around five to ten percent — is ‘addicted’ to social media if we are defining it from a scientific standpoint. But in the colloquial sense, a lot of people are addicted to social media. One thing is clear: our brain responds to social media use.” In fact, scientists have found that, when we receive a social media notification, the reward center of our brain becomes activated, leading to the release of dopamine. Over time, our brain starts to crave this feeling and neurological excitement. This response is similar to the feelings we experience when we see our loved ones, eat chocolate, or even win money. What’s more, the more a teenager received likes, they more likely they were to like themselves. This is because the reward circuitry part of the brain is particularly sensitive during adolescence.

One of the main issues with social media is that it fosters social comparisons, which are natural, but can be problematic for people with low self-esteem.

But social media addiction is just the tip of the iceberg. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that cyberbullying and “Facebook depression” (an actual thing) are additional negative side effects of social media overuse. Because teens essentially grew up with social media, it’s their default method of socialization. And because they’re in a social networking site (SNS) bubble, they do things they wouldn’t normally do in real life, such as participating in dangerous social media challenges, adopting fabricated personas, and even altering their appearance — all for the satisfaction a “like” brings.

Body image issues are another unwanted side effect of the rise of social media. Online and on social media platforms, there is a wealth of information supporting and encouraging people with eating disorders, often coined “thinspiration”. Here are some scary facts: According to the Eating Disorders Review, 30 to 50 percent of teen patients in a residential treatment center in Chicago were actively using social media to support their eating disorders. Another study found a correlation between the time that was spent scrolling through social media and negative body image. According to these findings, those who spent more time on a SNS were 2.2 times more likely to develop eating and body image issues, compared to their peers that spent less time on the same sites.

“Social media has been frequently cited as a key contributory factor in influencing body image. Research has highlighted that teenagers spend over an hour a day using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, with the ‘selfie’ becoming a social media phenomenon. It has also been reported that 16- to 25-year-olds spend on average 16 minutes and seven attempts taking the ‘perfect’ selfie,” says Dharamshi. “This obsession with appearance, which includes the regular digital enhancement of photos, can lead to the ‘normalization’ of unrealistic body image and the misconception that social acceptance is dependent on this. Children and young people in particular can develop eating disorders – and, in more extreme cases, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) – as they just want to fit in, which is extremely dangerous.”

Unlike traditional media, there are no boundaries as far as social media is concerned, says Dharamshi. And because we’ve got 24/7 access to social media, teens are now constantly being bombarded with messages and images from sources that they deem more credible or “cooler” than their parents.

“Interdisciplinary research shows a link between social media use in adolescence and depression, anxiety, loneliness, FOMO, body image issues, decreased self-esteem, sleep disturbances, risk behavior, and poorer academic performance,” says Dr. Rasmi. One of the main issues with social media, she adds, is that we carry it around with us. It’s often the first thing we look at when we wake up, the last thing we look at before we go to bed, what we turn to for entertainment, and what we do when we have a few seconds to spare. “This means that we are constantly bombarded by images and content, which is very different to the traditional offline media that we used to consume in the past”.

Two other studies published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology have found a link between Facebook and depressive symptoms, stating that “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.”

“One of the main issues with social media is that it fosters social comparisons, which are natural, but can be problematic for people with low self-esteem. Essentially, people who are feeling badly about themselves tend to compare themselves to people they perceive as ‘better’ (more attractive, smarter, or more popular). This upward social comparison makes them feel worse about themselves,” says Dr. Rasmi. “It’s important to note that this tends to happen when we connect with people we don’t know, rather than people we do know. The reason is that we have access to offline information for the people we do know. Therefore, we are often able to remember that their ‘picture perfect’ post is not representative of their day-to-day lives. We don’t have this offline information for people we do not know, and therefore it’s much harder to remember that what we see on their feeds is a carefully curated and heavily edited digital display.”

Dharamshi agrees, stating, “One of the key dangers of social media is how it can often present a distorted and ‘fake’ view of the world. Posts can include idealized images of peoples’ lives, full of happy and exuberant snapshots, which can leave us feeling inadequate and even depressed. It can feel like our life is not as fun, successful, exciting, or perfect, yet quite often these posts only tell one half of the story and it’s really important that we are all aware of this. Teenagers in particular have a tendency to constantly compare themselves to their peers and can become obsessed with checking their status, monitoring their likes and followers, and digitally enhancing photos on their posts.”

Teens and young adults are not the only ones at risk, however. Any person excessively using a social media site can end up developing the same symptoms as someone with depression and a “decrease in real-life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems,” according to a recent studyWhat’s more, using our phones for more than three hours a day can actually cause an imbalance in our brain’s chemistry, which can lead to irritability, emotional distress, unpredictable sleep patterns, and more.

Those who spent more time on a social network were 2.2 times more likely to develop eating and body image issues.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In one study, researchers found that participants who had limited social media access (30 minutes per day) felt better and experienced significantly less depression and loneliness than before, revealing that we don’t have to completely eliminate social media from our day-to-day lives. We simply have to use it mindfully with the understanding that not everything we see on our feeds is real and with the conviction that connecting with people happens best in real life, using eye-to-eye contact and not with our heads down and a screen between us, acting like a wall that blocks us from really seeing, hearing, and feeling what it is we are trying to communicate to each other.

If you’re someone who struggles with social media overload, Dharamshi recommends you:

  • Make family mealtimes a regular, daily feature of family life. Use this time to eat, discuss, and interact without any technology present.
  • Impose a time limit on screen time and ensure device-free time for at least 60 minutes prior to bedtime.
  • Ensure your bedroom remains a technology-free zone. Do not sleep with any phones or devices next to your bed, even when charging.
  • Participate in activities away from the social media bubble. Join clubs, play sports, organize movie nights, go for walks — anything that gets you away from electronic devices and engaged with others.

Practicing the above tips and remaining aware of the risks associated with social media can teach you how to use the technology to your advantage. Instead of hurting you, it becomes a tool that connects you with the people, ideas, and organizations most beneficial to your own personal development and wellbeing.