Are you worried that you might be getting addicted to social media?
You are not alone. It is estimated that over 210 million people worldwide suffer from some form of social media and/or internet addiction. 
What starts as a harmless pastime can quickly become a compulsion, and minutes can turn to hours as we scroll through our feeds. Video footage and images on platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are proving to be the most addictive type of content. The problem is exacerbated by algorithms that are becoming increasingly adept at working out the type of content we engage with most to keep us coming back for more.
What is addiction?
Addiction is recognised as a complex disease that changes the brain’s chemistry; it is not a personal failing or weakness. 
Two main types of addiction are recognised: 
- Chemical addiction – this involves the misuse of substances, such as drugs, alcohol or solvents
- Behavioural addiction – this is associated with repeated or obsessive behaviours that do not offer any real benefit
How does addiction work?
The cycle of addiction is closely linked to the human reward system. When you do something you enjoy, or when you experience satisfaction at achieving a particular goal, your brain releases a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, along with other chemicals that make you feel good.
Almost all pleasurable experiences are linked to dopamine release, such as shopping, enjoying great food, drinking alcohol, having sex, or just doing something we love. It does not need to be harmful: for example, losing excess weight or working out in the gym can also become addictive.
As your brain begins to associate a particular activity with these feelings of euphoria, it triggers cravings to consume more of that substance or repeat that behaviour, and this in turn stimulates your brain to produce larger amounts of dopamine. Cravings are often the first sign of addiction.
Over time, however, the brain becomes ‘tolerant’ when you repeat the same level of activity. This causes you to increase that behaviour or substance consumption to achieve the euphoria you are used to experiencing.
Why is social media addictive?
- For those who access their accounts via mobile phone, social media is available ‘on-tap’ as a welcome distraction or time-filler
- Recognising the pleasure this activity brings you, the brain releases dopamine each time you log on. This increases if your posts receive likes or positive comments
- A series of mini dopamine hits can flood your brain in a short space of time, as you keep returning to posts, analysing comments and responses
When is social media usage considered an addiction?
While most medical experts agree that certain behaviours can become problematic over time, there is still debate over the point when behaviours become addictive. Social media addiction is not an official diagnosis, but overuse is becoming increasingly common and may have serious repercussions on both our physical and mental health.
A mental health professional can help you determine whether you truly have social media addiction, or whether it is just a habit that you really enjoy.
Signs that you may be addicted to social media
- You are becoming aware that it is affecting your daily life, work or relationships negatively – yet you still feel compelled to continue logging on
- You are using it more and more during other activities, for example when you are eating, or when you are spending time with your friends or family
- You realise that you are using it to escape from unwanted thoughts or emotions
- You think about your social media accounts whenever you aren’t using them and log on at the first opportunity
- You begin checking your social media feeds during the night
- You begin hiding or lying about the amount of time you spend on social media
- You start to feel irritable, anxious or restless when you are not using it, or if access is reduced or withdrawn
Negative effects of social media
Social media offers many benefits, helping us keep in touch with friends, new and old, and family members who may not live close by. However, overuse can set off a range of poor mental health symptoms, including:
- Low self-esteem, especially if you perceive other people’s lives to be better than yours. This can be exacerbated if you start receiving poor grades or reprimands at school or work
- Feelings of loneliness and/or depression as you spend less time on face-to-face social activities
- Feelings of intense anxiety as you worry about people’s reactions to your posts
- You begin to feel tired and lethargic as a result of spending more time indoors or doing less exercise
- You even feel tired when you wake up, because your sleep quality is affected by checking your phone before you go to sleep, or during the night
- You lose interest in the things you used to enjoy doing
- Your relationships begin to suffer, and you find yourself getting irritable with friends or family members, especially if they try to limit your social media usage
- These effects are intensified by cyber-bulling, which is particularly prevalent among children and teenagers
How can addiction be treated?
If you recognise that you are becoming addicted, start by taking steps to reduce your dependence:
- Delete your social media apps from your phone or the device you most use to access them. Limit yourself to using them on other devices that are less available, such as a desktop. This will help you to start breaking the habit
- If you experience cyber-bullying, or certain posts are causing you anxiety, block them
- Make a point of arranging activities with friends and family whenever possible
- Turn off your phone when you are with other people, for example at mealtimes, at work or college, or when socialising. Turn off notifications in your settings
- Do not take your device into your bedroom at night
- Set aside a small amount of time each day to check your social media. Set a timer to make sure you stick to your limit
- Try to take regular breaks from the internet, whether this is one day per week, a week per month etc.
Many of the harmful behaviours and emotions we experience are not logical or rational. However, even though we recognise that they are not helpful, we find ourselves unable to stop them. If you are unable to break the cycle on your own, it is important to seek professional help.
Addiction often exists alongside other disorders, such as anxiety, ADHD, OCD, eating disorders or depression. You may also be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Your GP can signpost you to a specialist mental health provider or addiction service.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often recommended as it can help to explore the relationships between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Sometimes we need to revisit our past to address unresolved issues or self-limiting beliefs in order to make that break from doing what we currently do, to doing what we want to do.
 Longstreet, P. and Brooks, S. (2017) “Life satisfaction: A key to managing internet & social media addiction,” Technology in Society, 50, pp. 73–77. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2017.05.003.
 What is the Definition of Addiction? Available at: https://www.asam.org/quality-care/definition-of-addiction (accessed 9/2/2023).
 Alavi, S. S., Ferdosi, M., Jannatifard, F., Eslami, M., Alaghemandan, H., & Setare, M. (2012). Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 3(4), 290-294. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3354400/