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The Reality of Social Media Addiction

Approximately 4.9 billion people, more than half the global population, use social media. This is estimated to reach 6 billion users by 2027. Use is seen across all ages, with 84 per cent of people between 18 and 29 using social media sites, while 81 per cent of those between 30 and 49 using at least one platform.

With as many people signed in, it is important to understand the potential harms of this abundance of access. Certified Canadian Counsellor with expertise in Internet addiction, Brian Theriault, says that social media can lead individuals down a road of insecurity, shame and negative views of themselves or others. 

“What one is seeing, reading or hearing online is often scripted, filtered or fake,” which many people do not consider when they compare their lives to what they see online. 

By allowing ourselves to see only the fine-tuned photos that others decide to share, we run the risk of developing an inaccurate perception of reality. When it seems as though every other person is living a luxurious, exciting life, it can cause a person to think poorly of their own life in comparison. When we see the filtered beauty of another, it has a tremendous impact on our perception of ourselves. Young people are particularly prone to this fallacy.

The average social media user uses six or seven different platforms every month. The average person internationally uses social media for approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes every day. That is nearly 17 hours every week and almost 880 hours a year, the equivalent of 22 forty-hour work weeks spent on social media in a single year. 

Why do we spend so much time on these platforms if it is so harmful? These sites are specifically engineered to cause the repeated release of neurochemical dopamine, known as the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain. As individuals scroll through these sites, the content they are shown is catered to their preferences, which are determined by an algorithm.  

“The amount of ‘dopamine dumps’ experienced from social media can be intoxicating for many people,” Theriault says. “The chase for dopamine sets up the chase for more hits, which can lead to a full-blown addiction or compulsivity. More and more of one’s time is spent scrolling, looking for that particular hit.” 

Over an extended period, he said, the brain becomes ‘re-wired’ to seek out increasing dopamine hits via social media. The common goal among social media sites is to increase user screen time to increase ad revenue. In 2021, 3.8 million posts on Instagram were marked with the hashtag ‘Ad.’ In 2022, the app market around social media was valued at $49.09 billion. In the last quarter of 2022, TikTok generated $350 million in revenue, while Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat had a combined income of $205 million in revenue. These figures are expected to stagnate in the near future but will increase as more of the world begins to adopt 5G technology, creating greater access to the sites.  

While absolute numbers are difficult to determine, data suggests upwards of 95 per cent of social media use takes place on mobile devices like phones or tablets, while approximately 1 percent of users access their social media accounts from a desktop. Each phone app has a particular physical motion in common: swiping. This repeated action, paired with the release of dopamine as one sees content chosen for them by the algorithm on a given site, creates compulsive behaviour. The endless search for more content, called doom-scrolling, is a compulsive physical reaction to the pursuit of further dopamine release. 

“The same technology used to develop VLTs is used with social media,” says Theriault, referring to the repetitive action of scrolling on one’s phone compared to continually pulling the arm on a slot machine. 

Thus far, the psychology behind social media sites indicates there could be lasting harmful effects, particularly for young people. While social media can allow people to connect with one another, it can also create feelings of isolation. Studies indicate that two-thirds of young people report feeling worse about themselves and their lives after spending time on social media. Many young people feel inadequate about their social lives and will feel as though they aren’t leading good lives. Studies indicate young people are prone to developing poor self-image as a result of time spent on social media. This leads many young people to adopt harmful, unproven diets touted by online personalities. 

There are positive outlook channels people can subscribe to on any social media platform. Such pages share encouraging messages of self-acceptance and self-worth. Through these fitness motivation pages, millions of people feel support and encouragement from what they see on social media. Still, many of these same pages can create a negative impression of oneself. Young people who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to internalize their personal issues, worsening the state of their mental well-being.

“Young people are spending more and more time on social media, which can inhibit their ability to form true authentic connections and relationships in real life. I suspect people over 40 remember a life where social media did not exist or it was very limited, meaning they had to take the risk to engage people. Social media allows one to hide behind a screen and post thoughts and feelings, which can be less risky,” says Theriault. 

In addition to this, Theriault believes this depletes one’s understanding of how to approach someone in the real world romantically in an appropriate way.  

“The big thing is it can lead to a distorted view of courtship styles. People heavily reliant on social media lack the ability to engage in flirting, noticing, attracting, and demonstrating one’s self. These are skills to attract the other and can be underdeveloped or distorted, which contribute to isolation.” 

It is clear that social media is, at present, an immovable object in our world. It makes waves socially as well as culturally, creating a feeling of global connectedness and personal isolation simultaneously. These behemoth outlets show no sign of slowing, and it is up to us to use these outlets safely for the sake of our own well-being. The rapid and continual dopamine release creates a very real addiction, and we must keep this in mind as we collectively carry on using these sites. 

So, how does one use social media in a way that is less harmful? Theriault says that creating hardline intentions about why one is using social media and limiting the time spent on each site are major factors in using these sites in a healthy way. 

“I would say the most important is to ask yourself, honestly, what is my intent in using this particular platform of social media? Remember that it is a tool to use. Limiting one’s use of it is key. Intentionality is key because it will give back control. Social media companies are about making money. Profit is the bottom line. They want you to be addicted. Knowing this, one can take their life back and control what they consume.” 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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