Do I Have a Social Media Addiction?

By Cassie Shortsleeve

Social media addiction isn’t an official addiction the way a substance use disorder is, but you can still feel addicted to it. That’s partly because using social media leads your brain to create a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical our brains release when we’re doing something we enjoy, so our brains want more when they get a hit of it. That’s why it can be hard to stop scrolling or sign off an app, or why you may feel the urge to check your phone and then immediately check it again.

Experts often use the term “problematic interactive media use” when referring to these addiction-like feelings. Research suggests that becoming too reliant on apps can negatively impact school performance and emotional well-being and contribute to relationship problems, so it’s a good idea to check in on your usage. 

Below are some indications that your social media use may be taking a toll on you, plus ways to change your behavior and feel better.

Signs Your Social Media Usage May Be Problematic

  • You can’t function in normal life without it.
  • It’s interfering with your sleep, eating, or schoolwork.
  • You feel withdrawal symptoms when you’re off it.
  • You can’t stop thinking about going back to it.
  • You don’t feel like yourself when you can’t use it.
  • You wonder what’s happening on social media or feel like you’re going to miss out on something when you’re not using it.
  • You feel bad about yourself after using social media.
  • You feel agitated, angry, or annoyed when you don’t have access to it.
  • You use social media more than you’d like to.
  • You feel compelled to go on social media when you don’t really want to.
  • You log on to your apps right when you wake up in the morning.

How to Foster a Healthy Relationship With Social Media

Learn Your ‘Red Flag Feelings’

To figure out how to set boundaries around social media, you first have to recognize what it feels like when you linger on an app longer than you’d like or negative feelings bubble up after you scroll. Maybe you start to feel restless if you scroll for more than 20 minutes, or maybe you start negative self-talk after you view certain types of images. Write these things down or keep track of them in your mind, and stop using social media when you notice them. Being able to pinpoint these moments is the first important step in knowing when to close an app and change your focus.

Do Something Offline to Occupy Your Mind

Building a full and exciting life offline is just as important as figuring out limits online. That’s because when we connect with others, spend time doing things we enjoy, and stay active throughout the day, there’s simply less time for—and maybe less interest in—social media. Here are some ideas for things to do offline:

  • Prioritize face-to-face connections. Social connections are a huge part of both physical and mental health. Talking to a family member, taking a walk with a friend, or planning an outing with a group can help you bond with others and build a healthy life offline.
  • Stay informed. Do you typically get your news from social media? Expand your media diet by subscribing to trustworthy print publications or watching TV news.
  • Move your body. Walking, running, swimming, and stretching are great ways to stay active and spend time away from screens.
  • Get outside. Leave your phone behind and get some fresh air by reading on a park bench, having a picnic in a park, taking a hike, or just walking around your neighborhood.
  • Find your creative side. Explore ways to express yourself through journaling, creative writing, painting, singing, or dancing.

Set Healthy Limits

Setting limits with social media can be hard, and you’ve likely seen ideas about social media detoxes or flat-out deleting apps. You can certainly try those strategies, but the fact is social media is a part of life, so it’s also important to find ways to live with and around it. You can choose not to have it as a part of your life (and that’s fine), but you’ll still be around it at some point, so it’s a good idea to form a healthy relationship with it. Here are some ways to start:

  • Be intentional about your time online. You can do that by using an app tracker (some apps have built-in timers that can help you track your time and set reminders to exit the app) or setting a timer for 15 minutes to scroll Instagram. Awareness of how you spend your time and scheduled breaks keeps you accountable and helps you realize you don’t need to spend excess time online. Pro tip: If you find yourself ignoring the alarm, set a timer in another part of your room or the house so you have to get up to turn it off. That can break the dopamine spell. 
  • Set your phone to grayscale. Phone apps are meant to catch your eye and loop you back in. Changing your phone settings to grayscale during times you’d like to stay offline is a quick and easy trick.
  • Turn off push notifications. Notifications are designed to get you to check apps, which increases the likelihood you’ll start scrolling. Turning them off can help you stay off apps.
  • Create No-Phone Zones. Keep your phone out of your bedroom past a certain time, for example, or ban phones at the dinner table.
  • Start small. Starting with a goal of decreasing social media usage by 30 minutes a week will give you 30 more minutes to do things that are healthy for your mind and body.

Reach Out If You’re Struggling

If you’ve tried the above strategies and you’re still having difficulty letting go of social media, open up to your friends, a family member, a trusted adult (such as  a teacher, coach, or mentor), or a therapist to help you work through things. Remember: Social media is designed to keep you hooked, and it’s OK to need some additional help to find a balance that works for you.

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