Social media is a great way to stay in touch with your friends, learn new things, and connect to the wider world. But for some people, the habit of scrolling through feeds can turn into actual addiction. In this guide, we’ll explain what social media addiction is, how to identify it, and how to access help if you struggle with it.
What is social media addiction?
We all probably spend more time than we’d like checking social media. But if you find your urge to check in on all the apps is uncontrollable and interfering with your everyday life, it might be a case of social media addiction.
Lots of the signs of social media addiction are things most of us have been guilty of once or twice - checking our phones when we're out with friends, staying up way too late scrolling through celebrities’ feeds, or spending a bit too long finding the perfect filter for our Instagram post. What’s different about a serious social media addiction is that these behaviours are constant and compulsive. Rather than sneaking a glimpse at Twitter at the dinner table, social media addiction means you’re building your life around your phone.
Experts have devised six questions that can help you tell the difference between a normal level of social media use (or even over-use) and actual addiction:
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
- Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
- Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
- Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
- Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
- Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job or studies?
If you don't match these criteria but still feel uneasy about social media, check out our guide How to stay safe online.
What are some effects of social media addiction?
Too much screen time, especially at night, can lead to trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. This is thanks to the blue-toned light that comes from screens, which messes with our natural sleep rhythms. Some phones and computers now come with a filter or a feature that changes the quality of the light at night, but it’s not yet clear how much these actually help.
The cause of the sleep disruption can also be a little more obvious: if you’re addicted to social media, you may well find yourself lying in bed scrolling into the night, afraid of missing any updates while you sleep.
Besides making your mornings rough, missing out on good sleep is really bad for your mental and physical health. Check out our guide How to improve your sleep patterns to learn more.
We go on social media to see our friends… and sometimes it’s easy to lose track of the fact that all those filtered, staged photos aren’t an accurate depiction of other people’s lives. And that can make us feel bad about ourselves in comparison. Studies have found that frequent social media users are more likely to feel negatively about themselves, their lives, and their bodies. We already have a tendency as humans to compare ourselves to other people, and social media just makes the problem more intense.
Social media addiction has also been linked to anxiety. Getting a bunch of likes on a picture feels great, but becoming too dependent on that feeling can mean that your sense of self-worth gets tied up in how many comments you get. Every new post can lead to a spiral of anxiety about whether your followers will like it… which starts to feel like a question of whether or not they like you as a person.
It might seem weird that apps meant to help us connect to other people can lead to isolation, but that’s what happens with social media addiction. Social media contacts start to take priority over real-world relationships, and constantly checking in on your newsfeeds can disrupt your studies or work.
Social media addiction often begins when you start using apps as a way to escape from problems in your life. But as social media use leads you to ignore your relationships, work responsibilities, and mental health, the problems just get worse... which makes social media an even more tempting escape. It’s easy to see how this leads to a cycle of returning to social media for the quick jolt of happiness that a new like gives you, while ignoring the rest of your life.
If you think you might be addicted to social media, there are resources that can help you break the habit and get control of your social media use.
If some of the traits in this guide sound like you, it can be good to start out by trying a social media ‘detox.’ This usually lasts around a month or so, and includes doing things like:
- turning off notifications on your phone
- setting limits on how often you’ll check your phone in a day, and for how long
- setting aside periods in the day for non-screen time (such as during meal times)
- leaving your phone in a separate room from where you sleep so you don’t get the urge to check social media before bedtime
- taking part in activities where it’s impossible to check your phone, such as running, swimming, mindfulness practise or group sports
- telling your friends you’re going on a digital detox, and asking them to support you
- suspending your social media accounts - start off small and aim for a weekend away, and then gradually increase the amount of time
- getting an analogue watch and alarm clock (the ones from the stone age that don't need the internet to work) so you don’t slip into checking feeds after checking the time
- using an app blocker or smartphone monitor app such as App Detox, Space or Tracky
If you’ve tried a detox and just can’t do it, or your social media use feels compulsive or out of control, it’s a great idea to find professional support.
As with lots of medical conditions, visiting your GP or family doctor is a good place to start. They will be able to chat to you about your relationship with social media and if they think it’s necessary, can refer you to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist for further support, which could include things like counselling or therapy.
Social media addiction is a genuine addiction - studies have found that it activates the same parts of the brain as gambling or even drug addictions - and there is absolutely no shame in needing help.
Good stuff from elsewhere
Addiction Center (USA based)
A fact sheet about social media addiction
Tips for undertaking a social media detox
It's Time to Log Off's digital detox tips