Social media addiction is real, powerful and worse than alcohol, but you can fight it with the right tools

Did you know that there’s a drug out there that leaves you emotionally dependent on its presence, cranky in its absence and that anyone can partake of it? This drug is freely available -- young children use it regularly, requires minimal effort to consume and is considered to be more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes.

People addicted to this drug can sometimes lose touch with reality, are very moody and have really short attention spans. These people don’t sleep well, constantly fidget, are easily distracted and rejoice at the most inane things. Paradoxically, these people are afraid of missing out on real world happenings, of being out of the loop and seek constant updates on the world around them.

In extreme cases, conversations degenerate and time has no meaning.

This drug is insidious, it has no scruples, it infects anyone and everyone indiscriminately, be they man or child. It has cost people their lives, their jobs and their friends. It has ruined lives, promising careers and relationships built up over many years.

Dejected individual sad Getty 720

The worst part about this drug is that people don’t believe it’s addictive. They believe it to be a harmless distraction. Again, today’s children are its most prolific users.

The makers of the drug know its potential. They spend millions on research, hire the most brilliant minds in the world and keep an army of minions who do nothing but refine the formula daily, making the drug ever more addictive and ever more insidious.

They’ve made it so addictive, in fact, that at least half the world is hooked onto it, and that includes yours truly and yourself, dear reader.

This drug is social media.

But don’t take my word for it. The BBC quotes Nathan Driskell, a therapist who treats social media addicts, as saying, “It’s worse than alcohol or drug abuse because it’s much more engaging and there’s no stigma behind it.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago suggest that even sexual impulses and the desire for sleep can’t hold a candle to social media. They found that people were more likely to give in to cravings of social media than for biological needs. Even with cigarettes and alcohol, there’s an associated monetary cost, they found. With social media, the perceived cost is low and it’s available to all.

In a Cornell Information Science Study titled ‘99 days of freedom’, researchers asked users to give up Facebook for 99 days. Few could survive the “ordeal.” The study found that many of those who held out the longest simply managed to do so because they had other outlets, like Twitter.

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“These results show just how difficult daily decisions about social media use can be,” concluded Eric Baumer, a researcher who worked on the study.

Another report in Computer World talks about how social media apps are designed to keep you addicted. Comparing the practices to clickbait headlines, the report claims that the notification icon you see on your social media app is designed to make you tap on it. After all, you don’t know what those 5 notifications are, do you? You want to click on the app and found out. It becomes compulsive.

The same report talks about the design of your social media streams. They’re designed to keep you engaged, to draw you in and not let go. All this talk of algorithmic news feeds, auto-playing videos and everything else is part of this process. Taking a quote from the report, “The tweaking of algorithmic filters for addiction means that in theory social sites get more addictive every day, and that the sites are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive.

Clearly, there’s a lot of evidence proving social media’s addictive nature. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in California tells the BBC, “We give people driving lessons and swimming lessons, but everyone gets a smartphone and off they go.”

And this is the crux of the issue. Humans are inherently susceptible to addictive things. Our brain rewards us with dopamine every time it thinks we’ve done something worthy of reward. Dopamine is a neurochemical that many scientists have dubbed the “reward molecule.” “You did something awesome? Here’s some dopamine,” that’s just how our brain evolved to work. It’s designed to reinforce any activity that gives you dopamine.

This activity, however, can be drugs like cocaine, and even social media.

Getty Images

Getty Images

A study published by RadiumOne, a San Francisco-based firm states that “social media is dopamine gold.” The report claims that we create expectation when we like, or comment or post something on social media. “We feel a sense of belonging,” states the report.

A report on the American Marketing Association website claims that, “The same brain areas that are activated for food and water are activated for social stimuli.”

Disturbingly, Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark says that even the predictor of a reward gets your dopamine up. This can include the buzzing of your phone, which can trigger a dopamine kick. You soon start seeking that kick.

As Rutledge suggests, social media is not something to be taken lightly. We aren’t naturally born with an innate sense of responsibility and an abundance of caution. Fire, for example, burns us at an early age, so we know to be cautious around it. Social media, on the other hand, is simply rewarding.

Image Credits: REUTERS

Image Credits: Reuters

The algorithmic feeds and filter bubbles that social media create further increase our dependence on the platform. After all, the news feed is designed to cater to our needs.

The problem with social media addiction, as with other forms of drug abuse, is that the initial dopamine hits are not as pleasurable over time. We seek more and we get more extreme in our demands. Where earlier one hit of cocaine would be enough, you’d now need two, then three, and so on so forth until you’re permanently high and it’s still not enough.

You’ll eventually reach a point where something snaps, mentally, and you either give in to your addiction completely or try to seek help.

Replace cocaine with social media, and you find yourself in the same situation.

When we give in, we do hurtful things, like murder people live on Facebook.

And this is the world that we’re letting our kids into. Letting your children use smartphones and social media at a young age can be as bad as dusting their cakes with cocaine.

Social media and communication isn’t without its strengths and it’s not always harmful. It can be put to good use, to save lives, to spread a kindly word, to seek help, to inform.

We need to learn to use it responsibly, however, to fight the urge to give in to its addictive nature. This can only happen when we recognise it for what it is, and through education.