Is Social Media Addiction The New Heroin Epidemic?

The 21st century is full of strange phenomena that few people could have predicted just a couple decades ago. Among these, there are a number of addictions that are symptomatic of the 21st century lifestyle. Most people by now have heard stories of kids who cannot tear themselves away from certain computer games – World of Warcraft and DOTA being the two most notorious examples.

While there are some people who make light of these addictions and others who scoff at the mere notion of their existence, psychologists will tell you that they are very, very real indeed. Moreover, as with any addiction, the lives of people suffering from them are adversely affected, often in much more dramatic ways than people realize.

Social media addiction is another example of a technology-based illness that children and teenagers are particularly susceptible to. Teenagers are eager to manage multiple accounts and even monetize from them. In fact, because we are generally not as good at recognizing or treating disorders in children, you could argue these addictions are even more concerning than the conventional and better-understood ones like drugs and alcohol.

What Is Social Media Addiction?

In order to be addicted to something, whether it is drugs or social media, the addict must pursue their addiction to the detriment of their regular lives. Using social media frequently does not make you an addict. However, if not using social media adversely affects your mood and you are willing to rearrange other spheres of your life so that they take second place to your social media activities, those are indicators of social media addiction.

There has been a number of studies undertaken in recent years that look at how social media use affects the brain, and the results have been startling. Perhaps the most notable has been the revelation that using social media, endlessly scrolling through content, and occasionally tapping ‘like’ and ‘share’ releases dopamine in the brain in the same way that sugar, sex, and drugs do.

Not only this, but receiving notifications that other people are interacting with our content or sending us messages also triggers a dopamine release. Dopamine is the brain’s pleasure chemical. It is how our brains reinforce certain behaviors over time. In the simplest terms, when something causes a dopamine release, we are encouraged to repeat the behavior.

How Does It Affect The Sufferer?

Using social media frequently doesn’t necessarily indicate an addiction, and there isn’t a single standardized test yet. However, if three or more of the following statements apply to you, you might want to consider having a social media addiction yourself.

  • When you aren’t using social media, you spend a significant amount of time thinking about it or planning to use it.
  • You feel like you need to use social media every day, and your usage is increasing.
  • You feel unable to solve personal issues without social media.
  • When you feel depressed or unhappy, you turn to social media to feel better.
  • When you try to reduce your social media usage, you can’t.
  • When you don’t use social media, it affects you emotionally and/or physically, i.e. irritability.
  • Your social media use has had a negative impact on your job or studies.

Comparisons To The Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on individual sufferers. It has also had numerous negative impacts on the surrounding communities and society as a whole. This is true of most addictions; they rarely only touch the lives of the sufferers.

For example, just as the opioid epidemic has led to anti-social behavior in the form of addicts committing crimes to feed their habits, so too has social media addiction led to wider societal issues. The rise of alt-right trolls and incel communities cannot be blamed entirely on social media addiction. However, these groups rely on social media to organize themselves.

Social media platforms know that they are drip-feeding dopamine to their users by serving them content that appeals to their existing biases and prejudices. In some cases, this can lead to a normal awkwardness or inexperience with women developing into something far more sinister. The user is shown content that reinforces negative perceptions that they have, and they end up surrounded by other users with similar prejudices.

Most people can agree that social media platforms are not benign entities and that, unless there are safeguards and regulations in place, they can be dangerous. There is, quite rightly, a lot of focus on how social media services are undermining civil liberties and democratic rights. However, the impact of social media addiction on both individuals and their communities is still hugely underappreciated.

These platforms are designed to be addictive, and there seems to be little appetite within the industry for the kind of systemic and regulatory changes that are needed to combat their addictive nature. The only rational way forward is legislative action to force social media giants to behave responsibly.


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