How Your Social Media Addiction is Hurting You

Barbara Martin

I admit, I left Facebook cold turkey years ago when I discovered how much time I wasted making myself feel terrible.

My internal dialogue while perusing profiles often went something like this, “Oh, there’s that beautiful girl from high school married to some obscenely handsome guy, posing by her mansion in Naples, Florida. Wow, I feel so much better about my life! I am so glad I spent 30 minutes of my day stalking people on Facebook.”  Not that I don’t wish people well, but viewing the massive barrage of rose filtered posts has the potential of heading you down a poisonous path of comparing yourself to others that can leave you feeling, well…woefully inadequate. 

How Much it Hurts Depends on Your Emotional Place in Life.

As a psychotherapist, I spend an inordinate amount of time helping clients emotionally recover from what to them are painful updates posted online by their friends and family.  What I hear about most often is the emotional pain they feel when it seems as if their friends and family have something they don’t, something they yearn for.  For someone who is in a phase of life where they are yearning for marriage or babies, viewing perfect posts about fairy tale marriages and superhuman fertility powers can be emotionally devastating.  One of my young adult clients once remarked that looking at social media made her feel as if every girl has a Cinderella ending, “ugh…even my friend who is only 28 years old is getting married for a second time and I haven’t even found one guy to date.”  Obviously, this is not helpful for one’s emotional well-being.

But…It is hard not to look.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – it’s hard not to click on those colorful little apps and see what is going on in your social bubble.  Just thinking about it makes me want to check my feed.  So why is it so easy to get pulled into neurotically checking your social media? The answer is that it is addictive and checking your social media can have the same neurochemical effect on the brain as drugs, alcohol and gambling. Research suggests that obsessive use of social media can cause a malfunction of dopamine neurocircuitry. Like addictive drug use, overusing social media can develop into a harmful addiction, causing cravings and the need to go online in order to heighten dopamine levels.

What is the solution?

In addition to helping my clients emotionally recover from the (most likely) unintentional demoralizing blows of their friends’ perfect posts, I coach them on how to manage their addictive and compulsive social media checking.  Social media management depends on the situation.  Some clients are in the midst of coping with a romantic break up, the worst time to indulge in a social media addiction.  The conversation in these sessions typically play out as follows:

Client tearfully shares, “I just saw her post and she is hugging another guy.  Looking so happy, like our break up didn’t even matter.”

Me, “That’s awful. Do you think viewing her posts is helpful for your emotional healing?”

Client, “No.” 

Me, “Maybe it’s best if you block or stop all social media contact with her.” 

Client, “Won’t that hurt her feelings or make me look immature?”

Me, “This is about you and making a responsible decision to help yourself emotionally heal.”

In certain circumstances such as a painful breakup, the healthy choice is to stop most social media viewing, particularly with the person you split with.  In other situations, it may just be more about managing your social media viewing rather than abstaining.

Here are some simple rules on how to manage the social media viewing that may be harming your emotional well-being:

  1. If you just ended a relationship, consider blocking or stopping all social media contact with that person for at least 6 months.

  2. Set limits on your access to social media, for example, maybe view social media 3 times per week, 30 minutes per day.

  3. If you feel emotionally demoralized by looking at someone’s post, immediately stop digging for more information and stop looking at their posts.

  4. When you feel cravings to look at social media find a way to shift to a healthy alternative, maybe view Ted talks or call a friend.

The bottom line is that it is important for all of us to be mindful of our social media use and how it may be negatively impacting our lives.  Remember that you have a choice on whether or not or how much to engage in social media.  Making a decision that supports your mental health and over well-being can have a profoundly positive impact.

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