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The Relationship Between Substance Abuse And Social Media Addiction

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 5, 2019

When people think of addiction they often think of drugs or alcohol, not social media. It turns out, in fact, that social media has a similar effect as drugs on the brain and can be just as addicting.

Oh, the shivery satisfaction of those Facebook notifications! I can recall getting my first iPhone a number of years back and quickly discovering how delightfully fulfilling it was to feel at the center of my own universe via this small command central. Okay, that’s my ego talking. (And wow, did it talk a lot in those first few years I was attached to the social media tether.) I had gone from the doldrums of suburbia to feeling like everything I did from getting a coffee to walking the dog was of such importance that it needed to be shared with my friends and complete strangers alike.

The only problem was that I started to notice changes in my behaviors that seemed a lot more indicative of my addictive personality, than any real interest in how many people “liked” my recent status update. And what followed was my first hard glimpse at the real relationship between substance abuse and social media addiction.

I craved it. The distinct sound of notifications on my phone or computer began to have a Pavlovian effect on my brain. If I didn’t hear it, I would check for new notifications. I would re-read my own status, then enter a new one, because my life, and even those moments in which I wasn’t actually living it, was that important, damnit.

The behaviors are easily recognizable to anyone who has studied drug or alcohol abuse. I began to seek out my phone, quietly obsess over its proximity, and drop everything if I heard it’s distinct notification ringtone, even if it meant abandoning my children on the couch with an unfinished book so I could see who said what about nothing. I began to know better, but felt compelled to check, recheck, even when only minutes or less had passed. Here I was a functional adult who was entirely ruled by social media.

I decided to stop looking at my phone, I even quit Facebook only to return multiple times, I found myself “jonesing” for that simple gratification induced by a little red notification dot. And I knew I wasn’t alone. In the pick-up line at school, I saw parents leaning against the wall, scrolling and typing feverishly, so preoccupied by this tiny device, they scarcely noticed their own children tugging on their coats. We were zombies. It had to stop.

The Science Of Social Media And Its Affect On The Brain

Harvard University recently published a study examining social media’s effect on the pleasure centers of our brains. That part of our brains, known as the nucleus accumbens, releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine any time we do something associated with survival. In nature, the system functions exquisitely, helping us efficiently locate food, water, even a mate. It’s that warm feeling you get when you’ve eaten a good meal, or have had sex. Humans love dopamine, we crave it, and when this part of our brain is fired up, we seek out the response again imitating the behaviors or including the substances that induced it previously.

Unfortunately, in the hyperstimulation of this modern era, the same highly evolved system designed to save us, can work against us. And in the study by Harvard, it was discovered that people very much like to talk about themselves and the result is a small rush of dopamine. Interestingly enough, not only does the brain kick in a little dopamine when someone talks about themselves, but if someone is told they have an audience, the reward is greater.

The study found that humans do not get the same reward response when arguing their positions or talking about other peoples’ posts, and that 80 percent of content people post on their Facebook pages relates to themselves. And it doesn’t matter how mundane: “I’m pooped today!” shares the same relevance as “I started a new job!”

From an evolutionary standpoint, the more social a person was, and the more charismatic and capable of selling themselves through communication (especially to audiences), the greater their likelihood in attracting a mate. The reward system in our brains responds to sex and procreation of the species, and in this case, the social behaviors that are more likely to lead to those activities.

The research helps us better understand not just the power of social media addiction, but its relationship to other addictions, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, and sex. Each of these is based on the evolutionary process carried out by the nucleus accumbens. And since this part of the brain is programmed to associated life-sustaining activities and reward, quitting can feel uncomfortable.

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Social Media And Addiction

You’ll notice people don’t say, “I stopped using Facebook” as often as they say, “I quit Facebook” or more common, “I tried to quit Facebook.” And you’ve likely heard, “I’m too addicted to Facebook (or Twitter or Pinterest, etc.)” many times over. While people probably aren’t keen on connecting this addiction to an addiction to drugs or alcohol, the behaviors and physiological responses are essentially the same.

That little pixelated red dot corresponding with my perceived audience was no different from any pill I could swallow. It held me in a powerful grip. And quitting meant I had to go through some of the basic withdrawals of ignoring my body’s need for the quick fix in order to get past the addiction. I won’t compare this to the powerful grip of heroin or cocaine, but the behaviors were eerily similar, and as far as the brain is concerned, social media was as important as food or water, caffeine or alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin… Plain and simple, addiction is addiction.

Drug and alcohol addiction, or any addiction, begins by a process of introduction of a substance or behavior, stimulation of the dopamine centers of the brain, sensitization (or a greater reward during subsequent initial exposure to the substance or behavior), and compulsive seeking out of the substance, at which point we are facing the cruel realities of addiction.

Those realities, even in social media addiction, include the same markers identifying any addiction. Social isolation (in this case, spending more time on social media than with real people), preoccupation with your next “fix,” allowing the addiction to take up time that would otherwise be occupied by hobbies or work, increasing use/substance, hiding your use of the substance or, in this case, social media, relationship issues, etc. Though we call it “social” media, the result and reality, much like any addiction, is quite isolating.

A 2013 University of Michigan study found that the more people used Facebook, the more unhappy and dissatisfied they became. Fortunately, in understanding the behaviors associated with both substance abuse and social media addiction, we can better address the issues underlying the abuse. As with any addiction, co-occurring mental disorders, environmental factors, low feelings of self-worth, loneliness, age, gender, stress and more can contribute to a greater likelihood of social media addiction.

The Benefits Of Quitting Social Media

A study conducted in the UK a few years ago highlighted not only that people go through an initial withdrawal period, but that an all-out ban of social media outlets actually increased personal satisfaction on behalf of the participants. Once they were cut off from the behaviors, they reported more involvement with their families, greater satisfaction in keeping house or increased productivity, and feeling like they had more time to accomplish those things they wished to accomplish.

Quitting Social Media Resulted in:

  • Greater overall personal satisfaction
  • Increased productivity
  • More time with loved ones
  • Improved well-being

I still have a Facebook account, though I only access it on occasion. And the truth is, I’m happier for it. No longer do I fumble with my phone to capture the moments of my life for the simple act of broadcasting them. Instead, I put my phone in the other room, shut off the computer, and get back on the couch to read stories to my little ones.

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