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Social Media Addiction and Teenagers

Have you ever felt, without any specific reason, a compulsion to pick up your phone and launch a particular application?

Do you see your children doing this?

You’re not alone.

As of last October, 41 states and the District of Columbia, sued the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp – Meta. They allege that the platforms were designed in ways to cause compulsory use. This is particularly true amongst teenagers, whose brains are not fully developed throughout adolescence – especially in the areas of temptation and reward.

The theory alleges that these platforms make money by encouraging users to return to the platforms and stay on them for longer periods of time thereby increasing revenue. And, in an effort to sustain or build on that revenue-flow, the platforms do things to maximize user engagement.

Screen addiction and dopamine

How do they cause users to stay engaged for longer? Part of the theory behind such addictive behavior is that “likes” on social media cause the brain to release dopamine. The teenagers then, over a period of time, begin to seek out “likes” for hits of dopamine and when teens try to stop using such applications, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as: anxiety, cravings, insomnia, and irritability. This “intermittent reinforcement” makes users believe that they can get a reward, similar to gambling at a casino.

Some people have reported that the act of scrolling is another example of a technological mechanism that increases the release of dopamine and its smoothness is self-reinforcing. This is different compared to switching tasks which requires the use of more energy and seems more clunky.  This goes to the design of the platform which compliments or affects a user’s experience – resulting in the user staying within a certain application for longer periods of time.

The same can be said of quick bite-sized videos. They’re quick hits of dopamine, and if the user doesn’t get that fix, they’re on to the next video. (And the next, and the next…).

Rewiring the brain

“The overuse of social media can actually rewire a young child or teen’s brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification, leading to obsessive, compulsive, and addictive behaviors,” according to Nancy DeAngelis, CRNP, Director of Behavioral Health at Jefferson Health.

Mental disorders are typically defined and classified according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”). It is the guidelines that mental health professionals use to diagnose psychological disorders. Within the past 10 years, the contributors of the DSM began researching “internet gaming addiction” and more recently “internet addiction”. As of writing this, there’s no official diagnosis yet.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a recent study that concluded that teens who use social media in excess of three times per day are at heightened risk for mental health issues such as: lowered self-esteem, ignoring real-life relationships, reduction of empathy, anxiety or depression, social anxiety disorder, Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), and a decrease in physical activity.

Digital Detox

A ”Digital Detox” study came to a different conclusion claiming that Social Media is not addictive. According to this study, the researchers found that “a week of reduced social media usage neither increased nor decreased people’s desire to get back online.” And, that during a “digital detox”, people are happier. Because of this, it’s difficult to apply the language of addiction which has traditionally been reserved for substance abuse.

It should be noted that just because not all of the “addiction” language translates to social media and its affects, it does not mean that social media does not have an adverse impact on mental health. In fact, most all research supports a causal link between social media use and certain mental health issues. Additionally, some studies are beginning to look at individuals’ lack of agency over their own behavior as a result of social media use.

To help your child use social media responsibly, consider the following 15 suggestions

  1. Manage screen time.
  2. Set aside certain times solely for social media use.
  3. Leave the phone or tablet behind and out of the bedroom.
  4. Restrict phone use at the dinner table (this includes restaurants too).
  5. As a parent, try to model responsible social media behavior.
  6. Help to steer your child away from online conflicts.
  7. Encourage them to see their friends and family in person, often.
  8. Encourage them to engage in another hobby that doesn’t have such strong ties to social media.
  9. Make sure your child talks to you (or a health care professional) in an effort to manage their emotions.
  10. Talk to your child about what values and benefits they’re getting out of social media use including what a “like” means and how someone’s online presence is not necessarily an accurate portrayal the real world.
  11. Use parental controls, screen-time monitoring and limit notifications.
  12. Encourage a healthy-use of the internet for agreed-upon legitimate purposes.
  13. Look for outward signs that might signal what your child is experiencing, emotionally.
  14. Delete certain applications or use the web-based applications which dilutes the user experience.
  15. Encourage the use of a “dumb” phone such as a flip phone or a phone that’s application-lite.

It’s important for you and your child the understand that no matter the amount of followers someone has, it is not a substitute for self-worth. No amount of social media can ever replace real-world interactions and experiences.

Authored by Corey Friedman, Esq.

Attorney Corey Friedman