Addicted to Social Media? Learn the Signs and How to Treat It

In a survey conducted by Grow Therapy, 100% of therapists polled said that social media consumption can have a negative impact on mental health on some level. Thankfully, there are other ways to release dopamine in the brain outside of unhealthy social media habits.

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on May 01, 2024

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Social media has become seemingly inescapable in this day and age. While platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok certainly have their benefits, such as enabling us to connect with others and share our experiences, they also have downsides and risks – especially when it comes to mental health

In a survey conducted by Grow Therapy, 100% of therapists polled said that social media consumption can have a negative impact on mental health on some level. These impacts can be small or large, depending on the individual. One significant risk is the phenomenon of social media addiction, which can severely impact someone’s life. 

What Is Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction is a behavioral addiction where someone has extreme urges to use social media, and they spend so much time on it that it impairs other aspects of their life, says Kristian Wilson, a licensed mental health counselor with Grow Therapy. It falls under the umbrella of internet addiction, although it’s not a recognized addiction by the DSM. 

Unlike a chemical addiction (such as in the case of a substance use disorder with alcohol or drugs), a behavioral addiction involves engagement in compulsive, repetitive behaviors that provide a sense of pleasure or reward rather than consuming an actual substance. 

Essentially, someone with a social media addiction is addicted to the feeling they get when they engage in the behavior – such as the “high” they feel when they post a picture and get a bunch of likes and comments. Oftentimes, the behavior is an escape from their offline life or an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions like loneliness, stress, or depression. Social media sites can also be used for ego boosts and external validation, with people hoping to gain accolades or affirmations from others, says Jaime Askew, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Grow Therapy. 

The reliance on social media to feel good is a vicious cycle. Continued excessive use of social media can lead to people ignoring their real-life face-to-face relationships and their responsibilities at work or school, further fueling undesirable emotions. Then, they’ll turn to social media for a mood or ego boost to relieve these negative feelings.

Social media addiction is fairly common. More research is needed for exact estimates, but Dr. Ofir Turel, a top researcher in the field of technology addiction, estimates that up to 10% of Americans could potentially be addicted to social media. Teens and young adults are an age group that may be even more prone to social media addiction, as their brains are still developing. 

Symptoms of a Social Media Addiction

While many people today are extremely active on social media, there’s a difference between using it frequently and having an addiction. The main indicator of an addiction is that there are severe and significant impairments to one’s life.

“Much like other addictions, we look at the frequency of use and the ways it negatively impacts our social, occupational, and mental health functioning,” says Askew. A social media addiction will ultimately greatly affect day-to-day life, functioning, and relationships.

To identify a social media addiction, Askew suggests looking out for the following signs:

Additionally, people with social media addictions may try to cut back on their overuse of social media without success. They may feel troubled if they can’t get onto social media sites, longing to get back on it ASAP.

With behavioral addictions, people may experience psychological cravings and physiological symptoms for their addiction if they don’t have their “fix.” Askew says people may experience some form of withdrawal symptoms, including:

Why a Social Media Addiction is Harmful to Mental Health

Excessive social media use can have negative impacts on mental health, even if you are not addicted to it. This is certainly a public health concern.

According to research on how social media affects mental health, there’s no doubt that the overuse of social media can be dangerous. 

Some examples of potential risks of excessive social media use in adolescents and adults include:

If a social media addiction is not treated, it will likely continue to worsen. Askew stresses the importance of addressing the underlying conditions and risk factors for social media addiction. If mental health conditions go untreated, they, too can worsen, resulting in decreased functioning and quality of life. Not to mention, your relationships with loved ones and your performance at school or work may take a hit, too. 

Why Is Social Media So Addicting?

Social media platforms are literally designed to keep consumers using them – to stay on the app for as long as possible, and to return back to the app frequently. Ever-changing algorithms show users content and personalized recommendations that are likely to keep people scrolling. Plus, social media provides immediate “rewards” in the form of likes, comments, shares, and so on. These virtual rewards activate the brain’s pleasure and reward center, resulting in the release of dopamine

The Role of Dopamine in Social Media Addiction

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (essentially a chemical messenger) associated with pleasure and reward. Simply put, it makes you feel good. Over time, as your social media habits become more frequent and you get more rewards, the brain becomes conditioned to seek out this feeling, leading to addictive behavior – using these apps more and more, flipping between social media accounts, scrolling for hours, and waiting for notifications. You may develop a reliance on the dopamine you get from social media, and in turn, you may feel less pleasure from other activities that don’t give you the same effect.

When people become addicted to social media, they may experience constant cravings for the dopamine rush that comes with using these apps and sites. However, these “highs” don’t last. The dopamine rush wears off, and individuals are left wanting more. They may frequently check their social media accounts for likes, comments, and overall activity. This can lead to a cycle of compulsive behavior where individuals feel an intense urge to use social media, even if it interferes with other activities or responsibilities.

Tolerance is also an issue with behavioral addictions, just as with chemical addictions. In either case, someone needs more of their “drug” of choice to get the same results.  Over time, the dopamine rushes associated with social media can lead to tolerance. Individuals need greater and greater amounts of social media use to achieve the same level of pleasure and reward.

This can contribute to the development of addiction, where individuals feel unable to control their social media use and continue to use it despite any negative consequences they may be experiencing. 

How Social Media Addiction Is Treated

It’s crucial to address a social media addiction before it spirals further. To overcome it, someone must truly have determination and willingness to make changes in their life.

Treating social media addiction involves a combination of therapy to address underlying psychological and emotional difficulties, along with behavioral interventions that reduce the amount of time spent on social media.

Askew suggests starting with an evaluation by a mental health professional to determine what underlying issues affect or contribute to social media addiction. A therapist can help you dive deeper into the addiction, helping you determine why you rely on social media so much to begin with.

For example, Askew says a therapist can help you determine if there are roots in depression, anxiety, trauma, or stress. By working through and treating the underlying conditions, it’s likely that the social media addiction will begin to subside. In some cases, you may be referred to a psychiatrist who can prescribe medications such as antidepressants. A therapist will also teach you healthy coping skills to deal with difficult emotions and stress, so that you can turn to these beneficial techniques when things get rough, rather than reaching for your phone, tablet, or computer.

Depending on the root cause of addiction, various therapy modalities can help. It’s important to stick with treatment and be patient. Progress in therapy doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires you to put in work in session and out of sessions. Everyone’s therapy journey will be different. You may also look into support groups, Askew says. This social support can help you realize you’re not alone in your addiction, while also finding people who can hold you accountable, and vice versa. 

On top of putting in the work with your therapist, it’s important to make changes to behavior outside of your sessions. As with any type of addiction, quitting “cold turkey” and doing a digital detox off the bat may not be the best or most realistic idea. 

Set small goals and take baby steps to slowly reduce your screen time. A therapist can help you come up with an action plan based on your specific social media usage. You can start out even by just reducing usage by ten minutes a day.

Aside from starting small and slowly reducing your overall screen time and the amount of time spent on social media, Wilson suggests the following tips:

Healthy Alternatives to Boost Dopamine 

Thankfully, there are other ways to release dopamine in the brain outside of unhealthy social media habits. By incorporating these alternative methods into your routine, you can boost dopamine levels in a healthy, sustainable way, without relying on social networking sites or any other potentially harmful behaviors.

Here are five examples of ways to increase your dopamine levels.

1. Exercising   

Physical activity is a great natural way to boost dopamine, Wilson says. Not to mention, exercise also releases serotonin and endorphins. Dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins together will result in feelings of pleasure and reward. Even just 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise is enough to make a difference in your mental and physical well-being

Not to mention, exercise is extremely beneficial for mental health as a whole, so it can help to reduce underlying symptoms related to depression and anxiety, which could be contributing to problematic social media use

2. Meditating

Meditation has been proven to have many mental and physical health benefits. On top of reducing stress and creating a sense of calm, some research has found that meditation can trigger an increased dopamine release. Plus, Askew says meditation is great for self-soothing. There are many different ways to meditate. Listening to guided meditations on meditation apps or YouTube may be helpful when you’re starting out.

3. Listening to Music

Putting on some music you love can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, resulting in pleasurable feelings. Researchers have found that music, especially songs that give you the chills, results in a dopamine boost. This can help to create feelings of pleasure and enhance motivation. 

4. Eating a Healthy Diet

While it may not result in a dopamine rush, per se, eating a healthy diet with certain nutrients can help. Food with high levels of magnesium and tyrosine can boost your dopamine levels.

Some examples of foods you can eat are:

5. Getting a Massage

Getting a massage is a pleasurable and super relaxing way to boost dopamine, Wilson says. Research shows that not only can massage therapy boost dopamine, but it can also decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. On top of increasing dopamine, it also increases serotonin, which will further play a part in feeling good.

Ultimately, any hobby or activity that puts you in a happy mood or helps you feel relaxed will likely boost your dopamine. Experiment with healthy hobbies and behaviors to determine what works best for you. 

There’s no denying it: the negative effects of social media are real. Not every social media user will develop mental health problems or an addiction, but some will. Be sure to look out for signs that your social media and internet use could turn dark, and take steps to live a healthy lifestyle offline, boosting dopamine in alternative ways.

If you believe social media is negatively impacting your mental health, or if you think you may have a social media addiction, don’t hesitate to get help from a therapist. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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