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Social Media Addiction: Genuine Disorder or Joke?

It is not uncommon to find articles talking about social media and addiction in a joking manner, but as a society we are increasingly becoming obsessed with technology. While social media is a great way to connect with people all over the world, it should not overshadow any aspect of your life. Whether you consider it a compulsion, an addiction, or just an incredibly bad habit, social media, just like anything else, has the potential to negatively impact your life. How do you determine whether you have a social media problem? Forget the snarky comments about only speaking in 140 characters or less, and instead examine your social media habits the same way you would examine any addiction.

One of the things that makes identifying problematic online and social media habits difficult is that the majority of us must engage in social media for work, to keep tabs on family members, and even to find discounts and information about essential errands such as grocery shopping. Visiting social media sites many times a day and spending significant time on them is not alarming in and of itself. When a habit interferes with your daily life, however, you should be concerned.

If you find that you are becoming so absorbed in social media that you are neglecting work or school, ignoring your family and pets, and withdrawing from people and activities you used to enjoy, you may have a problem. When we allow one activity to eclipse everything else and fail to fulfill our responsibilities because of it, we are living an imbalanced and dysfunctional life. Is that addiction? In some instances yes, it is. In other cases, however, we are living this way because there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed, such as depression. Regardless, when we are repeatedly making poor choices with negative consequences, we need to make a change and often require professional help to do so.

A study by Dr. Susan Moeller at the University of Maryland asked 200 students to abstain from all media for 24 hours. “24 Hours: Unplugged” generated a lot of discussion about social media addiction because the students used literal terms of addiction to describe their experience. While anxiety, a darkened mood, and an inability to function can indicate addiction, they are also understandable emotions when your primary way of connecting to the world and staying on top of things has been removed, especially when that could have grave consequences. For example, if you missed an important work communication sent via social media, your job could be in jeopardy, or at the very least, affected adversely. Social media is a tool that we have come to rely upon to fulfill our responsibilities, not necessarily to escape them.

Of course, it is worrisome to hear that some of the students in the study were so dependent on technology that they simply could not function without it. It was not just their access to social media sites, however, that was restricted. Email, texting, the internet including news sites, and iPods were also forbidden. If you have been receiving information and communicating with people a certain way for your entire life and suddenly cannot do that anymore, of course you would flounder. You not only would be concerned about the negative impact withdrawing from social media could have on multiple facets of your life, but you would also have to learn entirely new ways of being, which cannot really be accomplished in a 24-hour period.

For those of us who grew up without social media, we may think it should not be that big of a deal, but our world has evolved, and we now live in a technological age. For example, most of us would struggle with maintaining a household if we could not use any appliances for 24 hours. Does that mean we are addicted to appliances? No, of course not. Not being able to function when a wide array of things we use every day are no longer available to us is pretty normal. If we are unable to adapt over time or simply cannot change our habits, however, that is another issue altogether. If you try to restrict your time online and continually fail, you may be developing a dependency on social media. When we are unable to implement changes that improve our lives, something is definitely amiss.

While social media addiction is excellent fodder for jokes, some individuals may have a genuine disorder. The primary hallmarks of addiction are that a behavior is negatively impacting your life and you are unable to modify that behavior. This applies to everything from substance abuse to social media to any other habit you may have developed. Is it clinical addiction? Is it compulsion? Is it a symptom of another issue? That is difficult to say, and the answer will vary depending upon the person. One thing is clear; if yours or a loved one’s habits are interfering with daily life and change is impossible, even in the face of negative consequences, then there is a problem. It is time to seek professional help and reclaim a happy, healthy life once more.