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Social Media Addiction: Signs, Side Effects, Treatment & More

Elena Hill, MD, MPH profile image
By Elena Hill, MD, MPH • Updated May 19, 2022 • 14 cited sources

Social media addiction is rapidly becoming a recognized phenomenon characterized by uncontrollable use, despite negative consequences. 

When we describe “negative consequences”, we don’t simply mean spending too much time on social media platforms. To really have a social media addiction, the consequences need to be significant: A student who keeps checking Twitter in the middle of class, even when he knows he’ll get sent to detention again for doing so, could be dealing with an “addiction”. A receptionist who keeps posing for Instagram photos and leaves the office without completing her responsibilities could also be struggling with an addiction. Individuals who continue to use social media in spite of persistent bullying, loss of motivation in their other activities or work, depression, anxiety and loneliness are displaying behaviors of social media addiction. 

No blood test or brain scan can diagnose a social media addiction, even though the behavior has its roots in body chemistry. But as you read through the signs and symptoms, you may recognize them in yourself. 

Even if you don’t have an addiction now, it’s good to understand why these sites could be dangerous. A few simple steps could help you cut back on your social media use and protect your mental health. 

What Is a Social Media Addiction?

To doctors and therapists, the word addiction isn’t a catchphrase. It’s a medical diagnosis. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is the doctor’s textbook for diagnosing mental health issues. Symptoms of addiction in the DSM-5 fall into four categories:[1]

  1. Impaired control: People keep returning to the behavior, even when they want to quit. 
  2. Social problems: Habits cause issues at work, home, or school. Use continues despite these consequences. 
  3. Risky use: People use even when it’s not physically or emotionally safe for them to do so. 
  4. Physical dependence: Addiction isn’t just a habit. It’s a behavior driven by chemical changes in the brain. 

A condition called internet gaming disorder is included in the DSM-5, and it’s been diagnosed in up to 5% of adolescents in some studies.[2] Gamers and social media users share plenty of characteristics, and we may see social media addiction as a formal diagnosis in the future even though it is not currently part of the DSM. 

While doctors can’t officially diagnose a social media addiction through the DSM-5, most experts agree that social media can be addictive. These experts have developed lists of telltale symptoms most people share if they’re struggling with their use. 

Signs of Social Media Addiction 

You have social media accounts, and you use them often. Are you addicted to them? Let’s walk through a few common signs. 

People with social media addictions may fit the following criteria:

  • You want to quit but can’t. You may delete the apps from your phone, log out of your accounts, and promise you’ll never look again. It’s not long until you’re back using the apps again. 
  • You feel uncomfortable when you’re not online. You need to check your accounts regularly, even when you’re doing something important (like driving). The pull to check in is often too strong to resist.
  • Others worry because of your use. Your friends and family have told you they think you’re online too often. You understand their concern but can’t stop yourself. 
  • You feel a rush when people react. A post with tons of likes fills you with joy, and you work hard to make the next one do even better. If a post doesn’t garner much attention, you have a disproportionately negative reaction including feeling extremely depressed or anxious. 

What Makes Social Media Addicting?

If you can’t control your online behaviors, you’re not alone. Social media sites work on parts of your brain that are invisible to you, and once they have changed, it can be hard to undo the damage. 

Social Media & Your Brain 

Dopamine is a key element in addictions. Your brain releases this feel-good chemical as a reward, and drugs like heroin cause a huge dopamine burst. 

Social media apps work in the same way. Each like, share, and comment dumps dopamine into our bodies.[3] We begin to associate the ping of notifications with that dopamine rush.

We’re also social creatures that are hardwired to feel supported when around other people. Social media sites put us in artificial communities that can be supportive but conversely can increase social anxiety and feelings of isolation, depression and even suicidality. 

What Leads to an Addiction?

Problematic social media use often follows a step-by-step progression:[4]

  1. You start using social media, and it makes you feel good. 
  2. You spend more time online to keep those good feelings coming. 
  3. You try to stop, but your brain calls out for dopamine. You know logging on will make the withdrawal feelings fade. 
  4. You start using again, and you’re not sure you can stop even if you want to. 

Social media sites are built to keep people online. The more you log on, create content, and engage with others, the more money the sites can make. The more addicted you are, the better for them. They are incentivized to fuel your addiction. 

Founders of social media sites like Facebook have admitted publicly that they know their sites can change our brains chemistry negatively.[5] 

How Many Are Addicted to Social Media?

No one really knows how many people have a social media addiction, as doctors can’t use finite diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5 to track patients with the problem. But some researchers say as many as 10% of Americans display addictive behaviors surrounding their use of social media.[6]

Consequences of Social Media Addiction 

Does someone who is spending too much time on social media have an addiction? The answer is no. Many people over-use social media, with the main consequence that they neglect other responsibilities and waste a lot of time that they could be doing other things. 

However, while this is a negative consequence, it does not qualify as an “addiction”. Addiction involves negative consequences that go beyond merely “wasting too much time” on social media. Instead, social media addiction implies more serious consequences on quality of life and mental health, including but not limited to: 

  • FOMO: Fear of missing out is a real thing. Seeing the parties you’re not attending and the food you’re not eating can make you feel like your life is colorless and bland in comparison. It can trigger feelings of isolation and anxiety which we know contribute negatively to overall health 
  • Abuse/bullying: Social media addiction might manifest as an individual using social media in spite of persistent bullying that they are experiencing online. Almost 60% of teens have experienced online abuse and bullying.[12] Much of the torment happens on social media sites. The more you participate online, the more likely it is you’ll be attacked by others.
  • Loneliness: We connect on social media to be with others, but feelings of isolation can appear if you consume more than you create.[13] When a like becomes your only form of engagement, you can feel very alone. 
  • Depression and Anxiety: Relying heavily on social media for social support and reaffirmation can cause anxiety and depression [13] 

The next time you log off, take stock of your feelings. If you’re left feeling worse than you did when you logged on, it might be time to reassess how much you use social media and whether or not it is extending from just a bad habit to real problematic use and even addiction. 

Risk Factors for Social Media Addiction

Anyone who uses social media sites regularly could develop an addiction. Remember that the sites are designed to keep you logged in and engaged. Continued use is almost guaranteed to cause a problem. 

But known risk factors for social media addiction include the following:

  • Gender: Females are slightly more likely to develop problems when compared to males.[7]
  • Narcissism: People who display classic narcissistic traits (such as enjoying the way they look, feeling superior to others, or looking for praise) are more likely to develop problems with social media.[8]
  • Alcohol misuse: Heavy drinking is associated with more time spent on social media. That enhanced time can lead to addiction.[9]
  • Adolescence: Growing brains are very susceptible to dopamine. People who start using social media while young are more likely to develop problems. 

Social media addiction doesn’t seem tied to race, creed, or nationality. This is a problem people face all over the world. 

Treatment for Social Media Addiction

Chemicals deep within your brain are responsible for social media addiction.[10] Quitting isn’t as easy as it might seem, as your cells will call out for the dopamine they miss. Therapy can help. 

How Treatment Programs Work 

Therapeutic interventions are proven to help people with social media addictions.[11] Each program is a little different, but in your sessions, you might focus on the following:

  • Triggers: When do you feel compelled to use social media? What could you do instead?
  • Influences: Do certain people or places make you more likely to log on? What substitutions make sense?
  • Wellness: What things did you give up to support your time spent on social media? What could you reintroduce into your life?
  • Dopamine: What activities could prompt your brain to release chemicals naturally? Would good food or exercise help? Are there other hobbies you could pick up?

Some people benefit from medications to treat anxiety or depression that may be fueled in part or largely by social media use.Medications can mimic the dopamine your brain lacks and make logging off social media a little easier. Talk to your doctor about whether medication is recommended for your situation.

How to Support Someone Who is Struggling With Social Media Addiction

You’ve discovered that a friend or family member is struggling with a social media addiction. How can you help?

Be there for your friend in real time. Schedule coffee dates, hikes, or phone calls. Ensure that you don’t talk about anything you’ve seen online in your visits. If you can, keep your phone away and avoid talking about social media so o you’re not tempted to trigger your friend. 

How to Decrease Your Social Media Use 

Plenty of people have tried to cut back their online hours and succeeded. Learn from them, and you could pick up a few useful techniques. There is no proven way to decrease social media use but here are so common tips and tricks that are helpful for some individuals::[14]

  1. Delete: Put all accounts on pause for 30 days. Measure how you feel at the end of that time and determine whether the social media accounts are actually bringing you joy.
  2. Block: Use apps to limit how much time you can spend online. Set sleep hours when your access is denied, or shut off your accounts when you hit a limit you’ve set each day or week. 
  3. Schedule: Set aside an hour or so each day, and do nothing but engage with social media. This is your dedicated time to use it. Don’t log in at any other time. 
  4. Rest: Take one day fully off from social media each week. Don’t log into anything on this day. 

Mix and match different approaches to see what works best for you. And if it’s hard, remember that you can reach out for help. 

By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More

  1. DSM-5 Criteria for Addiction Simplified. Addiction Policy Forum. August 2020. Accessed April 2022. 
  2. Diagnostic Contribution of the DSM-5 Criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry. January 2022. Accessed April 2022. 
  3. Addictive Potential of Social Media Explained. Scope. October 2021. Accessed April 2022. 
  4. Social Networking Sites and Addiction: Ten Lessons Learned. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. March 2017. Accessed April 2022. 
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  6. The Growing Case for Social Media Addiction. California State University. June 2018. Accessed April 2022. 
  7. Risk Factors Associated with Social Media Addiction: An Exploratory Study. Frontiers in Psychology. April 2022. Accessed April 2022. 
  8. Psychological Risk Factors that Predict Social Networking and Internet Addiction in Adolescents. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. June 2020. Accessed April 2022. 
  9. Risk Factors for Excessive Social Media Use Differ from Those of Gambling and Gaming in Finnish Youth. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. February 2022. Accessed April 2022. 
  10. How to Beat Your Social Media Addiction, According to a Therapist. CNET. December 2019. Accessed April 2022. 
  11. Social Media Addiction: Its Impact, Mediation, and Intervention. Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 2019. Accessed April 2022. 
  12. A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying. Pew Research Center. September 2018. Accessed April 2022. 
  13. Is Social Media Bad for Teens' Mental Health? UNICEF. October 2018. Accessed April 2022. 
  14. I Ran Four Experiments to Break My Social Media Addiction. Here's What Worked. Harvard Business Review. October 2018. Accessed April 2022.

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