Likes. Shares. Friends. Followers. These terms are understood around the world in nearly every language. Really, if you asked over 3.8 billion people how many friends they had, they’d most likely pull out their phones to check their social media accounts.
In terms of sheer popularity and utility, social media is comparable to the inventions of the TV, the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane. In a little over a decade, social media reshaped socialization, communication, business, and culture. Recently, we’ve seen it also reshape politics, news, truth, and – more frightening — reality itself.
Estimates suggest around 210 million people are addicted to social media. Not surprisingly, the most susceptible groups to becoming addicted to social media are children and adolescents.
As the darker side of social media becomes clearer to policymakers, psychologists, and parents, two states have now introduced legislation to hold Big Tech responsible.
Who’s To Blame for Our Addiction to Social Media?
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, California Representative Jordan Cunningham asked, “Who should pay the social cost of this? Should it be borne by the schools and the parents and the kids, or should it be borne in part by the companies that profited from creating these products?”
On March 15th, Cunningham and Representative Buffy Wicks introduced a bipartisan proposal called the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, which is supported by the Children’s Advocacy Institute.
Overall, the California bill holds tech companies accountable for features designed to be addictive, such as the ‘Like’ button and endless scrolling. The bill also reigns in Big Tech regarding its use of a minor’s personal data to keep them engaged.
If the law passes, the companies could face up to $25,000 in civil penalties per child. And parents could also sue for up to $1,000 per child in class-action lawsuits.
On the same day, Minnesota lawmakers proposed a similar law prohibiting tech companies from using algorithms that recommend content to minors. It would force tech companies to create a function to turn off algorithms for anyone under 18 years old.
Both bills are designed to push back on practices proven to be addictive. Social media addiction — similar to other addictions — is often detrimental to the user’s well-being. It affects on- and off-screen behaviors, emotional regulation, attention spans, sleep patterns, and self-esteem — especially among young people.
How Does Someone Become Addicted to Social Media
Social media addiction is an uncontrollable urge of a person to use the internet and social media to an extent that being offline creates anxiety. Psychologists tend to agree that between 5-10 percent of American users are addicted to social media.
Social media critics claim that the platforms employ features that are similar to playing slot machines in Las Vegas — it’s designed to be addictive and endless. And there’s no doubt that designers of the social media platforms created functions to keep their users engaged.
Along with the “gamification” of social media (receiving likes, shares, etc.), there’s also a deluge of messages — when offline — about the platform to get you back on. This “notification” function is likened to a drug dealer or bartender knocking on your door all day.
The underlying similarity of all social media functions is the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s at the core of all our habits. When we have sex or eat, we release dopamine. In short, dopamine decides what activities are important enough to do again. It does so by making us feel good.
However, as we’ve seen recently, outrage also largely drives social media algorithms. That’s because anger — and finding like-minded angry people — also releases dopamine.
Dopamine doesn’t distinguish between good habits and bad habits. Doing drugs or determining self-worth through social media “likes” are not good habits — but, in both cases, the dopamine released through the behaviors can lead to addiction.
The Real-World Consequences of Living Online
The risks of social media addiction are well-documented. In one study, adolescents who spent more than 5 hours on social media were 71 percent more likely to be suicidal than peers who spent at least one hour socializing daily in the real world.
Critics of these types of studies contend that a person spending that much time online is probably already prone to depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s a symptom, not a cause.
However, according to in-house research by the companies themselves, their social media platforms — without question — negatively affect users.
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, released internal studies concerning adolescent girls and Instagram. According to the study, 13.5 percent of U.K. girls reported that Instagram made their suicidal ideation worse because they compared themselves to others on the platform.
A four-year study by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry supported this relationship between depressive symptoms, social media use, and comparing oneself to others. Unlike TV, which young people largely consider an idolized version of life, social media creates comparisons with peers.
For adolescents, determining (and feeling) dopamine cues can also blur the lines of reality, satisfaction, and, more importantly, dissatisfaction when on- and offline. In other words, hearing a ‘bing’ sound when receiving a message on Facebook and laughing with a friend will both release dopamine, but the experiences are not the same.
And as online and offline realities blur, the emotions and thoughts of a teenager will continually collide with dueling truths. This is all happening in a developing brain. The reality of the ‘bing’ may become increasingly more important than a hug or laughing with a friend. When this happens, abrupt changes in personality, habits, values, and mood can be signs of social media addiction.
Common Signs of Social Media Addiction
While lawmakers try to push back on Big Tech practices, parents are still the first line of defense against teenage social media addiction. Each of the below changes in behavior and mood can be an indication of a growing social and emotional dependency on social media.
- Checking social media accounts upon waking, before sleeping, and throughout the day
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Growing irresponsibility towards school, work, or chores
- Noticeably anxious when communicating in real life
- Changes in personality
- Sharing posts incessantly, constantly taking selfies, etc.
- Becoming jealous of peers and pre-occupation with materialism
- Angry and restless when unable to access social media accounts
- Spending all or most free time online
- Depression, insecurity, or low self-esteem
- Eating and sleeping disorders
- Memory loss and learning difficulties
What to Do If You Need To Intervene?
To a degree, most teenagers may demonstrate one or two of the signs listed above during adolescence. There’s something to say about attributing some behaviors to, well, being a teenager.
But when it’s noticeable that these changes in behaviors, personality, and emotions correlate with hours on social media, then it may be necessary to intervene. Here are four ways to approach your teenager about social media.
- Talk to Them: Your child may simply be unaware that the platforms are designed to keep them online. Explain the various tricks of the trade to give your child perception.
- Check Your Own Habits: If you’re checking your phone constantly for work, news, or social media, then they will, too. Be cognizant of your own online habits.
- Set Limits: Try to incorporate a screen time calculator. Many phones, computers, and apps can set limits for you. Or simply create household rules regarding media consumption — social or otherwise.
- Promote Balance: Social media isn’t without its value. Like most things, moderation is key. Try to get your child to turn off notifications (at least during parts of the day or week). It’s hard to stay offline when you’re constantly pressured to get back on.
If you’ve tried these approaches without success, then it may be time to seek professional help. Addiction can be a strong adversary, especially when it comes to teenagers.
Call (800) 662-HELP (4357) today to speak with a specialist who can talk with you about treatment options.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.