The Mental Impact of Social Media

“The opposite of addiction is connection,” said British author Johann Hari at a TED talk back in 2015. Hari’s argument for this was that humans have a natural need to bond with one another, and from those connections come happiness and health. When those connections are limited or disrupted due to conflict in a person’s life, they look for other means of comfort, such as substances. Ultimately, we gravitate toward something with which we can bond and that offers relief. If it can’t be another person, alcohol or drugs might seem like the next best thing.

To follow this line of reasoning, it might seem perfect, then, that mobile phones are now the main method of communication. It has shortened the length of time it used to take to communicate with one another—think of how it used to be: snail mail, Morse code, Paul Revere—to mere seconds. But beyond the peer-to-peer capabilities, our mobile phones and computers serve as portals to the world of social media.


What is Social Media? 

Social media is comprised of digital technologies that allow for curating, creating, and sharing through virtual interactive platforms. They are ordinarily accessed through online apps via desktop computers, laptops, or, most commonly, mobile devices. Users can share data with the world, express themselves through content in multiple forms, share opinions and ideas, and more. It is a very fast-moving environment, and has become massively popular for its many marketing purposes, too.

For all of the benefits social media offers—staying in touch with friends, learning new things, sharing your thoughts with the world—it can also be harmful. It can lead to bullying, proliferation of false information, body dysmorphia, and more. Recently, it has been found to have a direct impact on substance use, particularly among teens.


Can Someone Be Addicted to Social Media? 

An addiction is a disorder characterized by repeated use of something despite negative consequences that are incurred. Dependence can form around a substance or engaging in certain behavior in a compulsive manner due to interactions with the brain. Modern research has found this has to do with the reward pathway. Whenever an addictive substance is used, dopamine is released in the brain.

For a healthy person, the reward pathway is activated when we do things that ensure survival and health, such as eating a nourishing meal or exercising. In instances of drug use that becomes habitual, the same gratification is felt, and so repeated use becomes the default response to continue achieving it. This is considered a dysfunctional reward pathway that occurs from an addiction or compulsive behaviors.

Social media functions in much the same way because of the neurological response we have when engaging with it. Taking a drug or drinking alcohol does not require the same exertion that exercise or even eating a healthy meal does, yet it elicits a response some say is stronger, better, more rewarding (depending on the substance). The same is true with social media. By the mere tapping on our phones while lying on the couch, we experience the illusion of a reward in the form of a dopamine rush to our brain.

With technology being so commonplace in our daily lives, it may not seem too sinister at first. Some of us are so attached to our phonespicking them up every few minutes to check notifications, texts, the newsthey feel like a third arm. If we can’t put them down once in a while, we miss out on being present in our lives in real time, thus sacrificing the chance to make new connections and memories in reality.


Dangers of Social Media 

When we open up a social media app, we are given a window out of our immediate life and environment into another. We could be looking at the ‘life’ of a celebrity, an influencer, a peer from school, an inspirational speaker, etc. The list goes on. Many use these platforms for good, and it can provide ways to raise awareness, educate, and share helpful information. However, it can spark negative feelings, questioning of self-worth, and degradation. This is particularly prominent among the youth, who are at their most impressionable.

With so many social media apps to choose from these days, the options can be overwhelming to begin with. Some of the most popular ones include Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, where users can put their talents, looks, and material possessions on display. The popular “Rich Kids of Instagram” depicts young millennials showing off their lavish lifestyles. These efforts are often for validation, which, ironically, shows that they themselves are as insecure as the people looking at their content. Insecurity is a common root of addiction—people will reach for a substance in the same way they will post a photo hoping for likes and comments to feel better about themselves.

Some of the common feelings that can occur from too much scrolling on social media can include:

  • Envy: Seeing the lives of others on display can evoke jealousy, especially for someone who struggles financially or is having other difficulties that make them feel different. This can lead to anxiety, self-doubt, and depression.
  • Inadequacy: When barraged with photos and videos that are altered heavily with filters and Photoshop, someone may feel they aren’t good enough and constantly comparthemselves to unrealistic standards. It can make us question our looks, clothing choices, place of living, and more.
  • FOMO (fear of missing out): If photos of a party, gathering, or event circulate and someone was left it out, it can be especially isolating and lead to a bout of depression.
  • Social isolation: Fear of being different, not having the best clothes or money to spend can prevent people from going out and socializing at all because they are afraid of being judged to disliked. It may feel safer to scroll through the content of others from the comfort of their room, which can lead to extreme loneliness.
  • Body dysmorphia: Celebrities and those who are well-off financially often have access to trainers, nutritionists/chefs, and plastic surgery to ‘perfect’ or medically manipulate their looks. This sets an unrealistic bar for men and women alike, as the same physique often unattainable without the same means. This can lead to eating disorders or increased substance use to curb one’s appetite or increase ability to exercise.
  • Cyberbullying: Though bullying has long been a problem, social media has made it much easier for people to prey on others from behind their phone or computer screen. This can be in the form of name-calling, stalking, general harassment, or other type of abuse, often resulting in anxiety and depression for the victim.

Any of the above emotions can lead a person to reach for substances because they may feel poorly about themselves, and think it will make them feel better. Social media allows people to portray something of a fantasy life—their happiness looks effortless and fun. The truth is that no one’s life is perfect, or without any sadness or difficulties. Projecting otherwise is dangeroussetting a precedent for others that says what they have is best, and anything less is not as good.


Glamorization: Exposure to Drug and Alcohol 

While the use of online platforms can be used to display fun and healthy activities, such as cooking, traveling, and hiking, the wholesome content ends at some point, and more sinister material crops up. Some accounts share images and videos of partyingpartaking in illegal activities, violence, or other incriminating situations.

When a celebrity or social media influencer posts a photo of them drinking, smoking, or using drugs, it can reach thousands in mere seconds. If a public figure posts themselves holding up a gun or smoking marijuana while in their Lamborghini, it’s going to look cool to someone who could be easily influenced. As the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so you can bet many may want to follow suit. Furthermore, the popularity of certain posts that show off certain behaviors can trick the viewer into thinking it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do, and if they’re looking for a way in, they may feel they have nothing to lose.

For someone who has experienced addiction with substances and is struggling to stay sober, it can also be dangerous ground to tread. Let’s say they open their Instagram app to do a quick scroll, feasting their eyes upon a rapid succession of images and videos that sends a jolt of dopamine to their brain. Should they stumble upon a photo of friends clinking glasses at a bar, or of a celebrity promoting their liquor company, it can trigger a reactive response before they even know what they’re looking atPhotos can portray drinking and drugs in ways that make it look fun and adventurous, and it might convince the person struggling that they ought to go back to it. What looks like a quick fix appears easier than trying to navigate the discomfort in early sobriety.

Keep in mind that social media also captures the moments people want to display—drinking shots at the bar, or smoking a blunt by the pool on a sunny day. What they don’t show is the hangover that might follow the next day, the DUI they might get on the drive home, or their landlord serving them an eviction notice because they can’t pay their rent. It all depends on the picture they want to paint.


Why We Use Social Media and Substances to Excess 

Any form of addiction stems from the desire to escape, as well as discomfort or dissatisfaction with self or one’s current life circumstances.

When looking at the larger picture of addiction, social media may seem less harmful when compared to drug or alcohol use because the consequences appear to be less severe, and because it is so commonplace everywhere. The truth is, however, that the mental tax it has can have on us when taken to extremes may be so crippling that it can lead to substance abuse as a way to cope.

When we use substances to mask unpleasant feelings quicklyit eliminates the need to process them in a healthy fashion. This can further burden us and stack up those bad emotions on top of one another, which can eventually lead to a mental break. On the other hand, it could make you feel uplifted and inspired. If you can check the ways in which social media makes you feel, comb through the accounts you follow and your daily habits, so you only use it in a way that is not harmful to your life.

Unfollow the accounts that make you question yourself, or have you feeling sad or lonely. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to set some Screen Time limits on your phone, or set designated times throughout the day to put your phone down and turn your focus to other things in your life that you enjoy.


Treatment for Social Media Addiction & Substance Abuse 

If you or a loved one are struggling with a social media addiction and/or a substance abuse problem, you’re definitely not alone. If you have tried to limit your use and find yourself unable to cut down, it might be time to consider professional treatment.

Substance abuse can often call for medical detox depending on the volume and duration of use. The goal of treatment for any addiction is to address the underlying reason you are using to excess, and more fully understand the disease. Treatment is often a combination of therapy and evidence-based modalities that can teach you to cope with problems in your life on your own.

If you or a loved one is experiencing social media and/or substance use disorder, our team of Admissions Specialists is available 24/7 and are happy to discuss any questions you may have. Please give us a call today at 866.420.6222.

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