The relatively recent rise of technology has changed the way humans interface in the world. Though it has given the human race many gifts, from medical advancements to space exploration to exponentially increased globalization, just to name a few, it has not come without drawbacks. In particular, the smartphone itself and social media platforms are proving to negatively affect some people. Recent studies show social media addictions, coined “digital addictions” or “digital dependencies,” are perhaps more widespread and more common than previously considered and are leading to the proliferation of some mental health illnesses.
The last two decades have brought with them an unprecedented rise in the number of people who use social media. Just around 5% of the United States population partook in a form of social media in 2005; today, the number stands at roughly 79%. Globally, it is estimated that 57% of the world population has at least one active social media account. Unsurprisingly, the amount of time adults spend online has also increased, with the current United States average standing at more than 6 hours per day. Further, young adults in one report admitted that they are online “almost constantly” (Perrin and Atske, 2021). What's more, the average smartphone user will tap, swipe, or click their phone 2,617 times per day.
Opting for the digital world even when in social situations (Healthline, 2020).
FC, also known as the Unabomber, wrote in his manifesto,
“Never forget that the human race with technology is just like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine.”
Additionally, some United Kingdom Members of Parliament are urging the government to fund studies to look into whether or not social media addictions could even be considered a disease.
A couple of accepted definitions of social media addiction are:
“The irrational and excessive use of social media to the extent that it interferes with other emotional, relational, health, and performance problems,” (Griffiths, 2000, 2012).
“A behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas,” (Hilliard, 2021).
A definition for addiction itself is:
“[A] compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences,” (Wikipedia, 2021).
Further, Facebook, the mother company of Instagram and WhatsApp, among others, has been accused of purposely making their social media sites addicting. Users spending more time on an application is an advantage to the company due to an increase in stock prices and an increase in embedded advertising interaction. One technology engineer, Aza Raskin, explained that
“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally [...] a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”
In fact, social media platforms have been shown to affect your brain similar to that of gambling. What's more, “the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares [...] causes the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction seen with drugs like cocaine. [...] Neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system,” Hilliard, 2021).
Further, studies are now showing that overuse of social media sites is coinciding with some mental health issues. In particular, for already vulnerable persons, social media is possibly exacerbating pre-existing mental illnesses, including, but not limited to the following:
Loneliness / Isolation
Fear of missing out
Self Esteem Issues
Self-absorption / Narcissism
Changes in Brain Structure
Suicide and Suicidal Thoughts
Addicted to the digital world (Eslit, 2017).
The cyber-world that has been created is, for some, similar to an entirely different reality. These online platforms have allowed for an escape from the physical world, into one where friends, conversations, interests, and engagements can take on an entirely different form from that of their physical reality. This in itself is not inherently bad; in fact, for some, these online spaces have encouraged artistic creation to flow and personal opinions to be shared. Simultaneously, for others, there is a fear of expressing one’s own opinion, particularly if surrounded by an online narrative that is different from one's own. Further, creation and expression may be stunted in some, as they see the creation of others and worry that their own does not live up.
Though there are certainly negative effects, social media platforms themselves hold great potential to be used in positive, constructive ways. It has globalized the world where one can communicate with friends and family on a global scale. The instantaneousness of it is also often an advantage, with good and bad news alike having the ability to spread to the masses if and when needed. For some, social media is a platform to showcase creative talents, creating traction with a brand or idea that could have otherwise taken years to reach the same amount of people (if ever!). Social media is also a way to connect to new friends, potential love interests, and business partners. It is a way to share ideas, learn from others, and become, in a way, part of the global community.
It is clear that social media platforms have positive and negative potentials. It comes down to the individual user to set personal boundaries with social media usage. For some, that may mean no social media platforms at all, while for others it may mean taking “digital detoxes” for a week or a month, while for others it may mean limited social media usage to one hour per day. Just like with any other addiction, acknowledging personal limits and sticking to them is essential.
Connecting with the physical realm in an era of digital distractions (Magryt).
Social media platforms can serve as an ever-present distraction, always only a click away, and allowing for a few minutes, or hours, per day, to live vicariously through others or to simply escape the work that needs to be done, the phone call that needs to be made, the paper that needs to be written, or the inner healing that needs to be explored. Ensuring that the physical realm is also incorporated into one's life is crucial for creating and maintaining a balanced life. Working towards creating this balance, where social media maintains a positive, but never intrusive role in one's life, and one's physical world always remains the priority will allow us to use social media to our advantage, rather than having it use us to its advantage.
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“Stock Photo By Magryt.” Bigstock, www.bigstockphoto.com/image-180051418/stock-photo-group-of-friends-walking-with-backpacks-in-spring-forest-from-back-backpackers-hiking-in-the-woods-adventure%2C-travel%2C-tourism%2C-active-rest%2C-hike-and-people-friendship-concept. Accessed 3 Oct. 2021.