The action of posting a picture to Instagram starts a cycle that I cannot seem to tear myself away from. The anxiousness around selecting which of the 300 pictures taken on game day will make the cut, the rush of validation I feel as I see my notifications start to roll in, and the sinking sensation that eventually comes when I compare the amount of likes and comments I received to someone else’s feed are all common feelings. But no matter how damaging this is to my self-esteem, the sequence of events continues because I so badly want to feel that rush of validation.
This love-hate relationship with social media is common among users. Many people, especially those who have either built their careers around social platforms or become famous through them, have had to delete their accounts for mental health reasons. This furthers the narrative today that social media fuels immense comparison between your life and the glossy lives of others, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what is edited and what is real. However, many return to these platforms because they crave the feeling that posting gives them; people can gain thousands of views and comments within minutes. It is very easy for them to feel an overwhelming sense of validation in this time, though the feeling fades just as quickly as people scroll to the next video or picture. Human beings are social creatures and we all innately desire connection, so to be able to genuinely quantify how much people “like” you through social media is something we are drawn to, no matter how terrible these apps make us feel at the end of the day. It has recently been said that this cycle of validation, feeling badly about oneself, then wanting that validation again because of these negative feelings, is nothing short of addictive. This feeling of validation is highly sought after, but is social media able to qualify as a type of addiction?
The Addiction Center seems to think so. It is listed on their website as “a behavioral addiction” which manifests itself through “being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas.” Classifying this sort of addiction as behavioral makes sense because this category leans away from substances like drug addiction or alcoholism and focuses on people addicted to things like food or shopping. While these may not seem like addictive activities, people can unhealthily rely on them to a point where their lives are all consumed and subsequently destroyed by their counterproductive coping mechanisms. The site goes on to say that 5-10% of Americans fit this criteria, while globally this sort of addiction could affect around 210 million. These are immensely high numbers considering that social media has only been a part of human life for about 20 years.
To say that social media has negative impacts on the world’s mental health is, at this point in the global relationship with social networks, beating a dead horse. I don’t believe that there is a person using social media that has not been affected by the need for validation that apps like Instagram and TikTok cultivate for its users. And while I feel as though there are definitely times when I can’t seem to stop scrolling through numerous apps no matter how much homework I have in front of me, I think the biggest difference between procrastination and addiction is that addiction requires dependence on a substance. Rather than feeling reliant on social media, I often wish that social media could disappear forever or that one day everyone would just stop using it. I don’t like how much time I spend mindlessly scrolling, and I despise how easily I fall into the trap of comparing myself to other people. I use social media to turn my brain off for a bit rather than rely on it to function in my day-to-day. For someone addicted, however, the dopamine rush they receive while either posting on apps or looking at others’ content has become something they cannot live without and therefore they can’t control how much time they are spending on the internet.
This addiction may stem from the ways social media has been proven to alter our brain patterns. The NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center reports that aside from the fleeting dopamine hit that our brains have been trained to crave, people who use social media for prolonged amounts of time were shown to require much more effort to stay focused and complete tasks than those who limit their time on social networks. If this seems far-fetched, think about how hard it is to pay attention to your school work when you hear a ding from your phone—social media has actually been shrinking parts of our brains associated with sustaining attention.
And have you ever been to a concert yet spent most of it watching the artist from your phone screen as you record? The Center also states that recording an event such as a concert can actually deplete your memory of said event. This phenomenon occurs because by “externalizing” what you see, you send a message to your brain that it doesn’t have to work to remember what is in front of you as your phone is doing that job for you. Arguably most surprising, the Center reveals that brain scans of those addicted to social media are similar to those addicted to gambling or drugs.
Even with a disturbing amount of evidence surfacing about the harm it is doing, social media is not leaving. It is ingrained in almost every fiber of human life, for better or worse. Companies like Facebook (or is it Meta now?) are big enough that they can control what information is shown to the public, which is why this may not be common knowledge, even though social media is used by most of the population. This addiction may very well be getting worse as it runs unrecognizable and untreated in a world where everyone seems addicted to the screens in front of them.
Another nuanced issue in the realm of social media lies in how those with large follower counts often wield their power on social media. Whether they realize this or not, amassing an audience means that there is a certain responsibility to those who are following you. Painting an unrealistic picture of your life, your body, or your mental health often leads others to believe that they can attain an unrealistic lifestyle. Many influencers are not honest when they touch up pictures to make themselves seem smaller or more tan or whatever other modifications they make. Of course their followers will believe this is what the person they follow, a person they trust, looks like. Being upfront about editing is incredibly important for younger, impressionable audiences who look up to the figures in these images.
These influencers who are taking mental health breaks are so mentally drained because they are trying to live up to a version of themselves that does not exist. Social media is a highlight reel, but this does not have to be a bad thing. If users were honest about what they left on the cutting room floor, the apps we let consume us may become healthier spaces. Social media doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, so we are going to have to learn to live with it and its challenges. Users have to do their part to make it as safe as possible for both themselves and others because while we cannot immediately fix the changes apps like Instagram have cemented in our brains, we can alter the way we view social media and how we use it.