While social media misuse, related cyberbullying, and internet addictions don’t show rampant risks of overdose (as we see with other addiction crises like the opioid epidemic)—the growing rate of cyber-related suicides should trouble us. As experts observe, social media and internet overuse causes increased rates of cyberbullying which now affects around 40 percent of all people at some point in their lives (Hinduja and Patchin, 2019). Resulting bullying causes spikes in depression, anxiety, and low achievement—especially among the 60 percent of youth who say the cyberbullying they’ve endured has impacted their ability to feel secure, safe, and able to learn (Hinduia and Patching, 2019).
Recently, 90 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center (2018) say they are intensely concerned for teens bullied online, and the Journal of Medical Internet Research has already demonstrated that bullying targets are at a much greater risk of self-harm and suicide because of cyberbullying (Monto et al. 2015). As many as 18 percent may have already tried self-harm behaviors at least once (Ann et al. 2018) or posted hurtful content about themselves. When suicide is the second leading cause of death from age 10 to 34 according to the CDC, the problem of social media abuse forces us to confront a pressing truth: cyber addiction is a real problem that demands attention, education, and intervention.
Defining Mental Health: What is Cyber Addiction in 2021?
From video games to Facebook—psychologists, researchers, and academics debate cyber addiction. Nevertheless, many see a reason to include cyber addiction among the list of detrimental dependencies like gambling and drug abuse because of the way social media misuse presents in our lives. Just like a substance use disorder, people who think they see cyber addiction often observe weak social connection and a “hyper” focus on individual satisfaction of the problem behavior (Suissa 2014). Beyond these typical indicators of addictive behavior, cyber addiction simulates the drug-taking experience through hyper-arousal, interaction, and visual stimulation.
More than interpersonal withdrawal and social isolation, many academics and experts see “virtual addictions” as creating a state of hypnosis and arousal that can quickly form into a compulsive need. When a person participates in gaming, online gambling, or even social media—they enter a state of focused attention that limits their ability to remain self-aware, present, and mindful, creating a hypnotic trance that predicts addictive behavior (Fitoussi 2021 p. 232). This becomes an issue when a person is able to enter the desired hypnotic state and virtual trance through any screen—even the everyday smartphone or tablet (Olsen et al. 2020).
As our screens and devices through which we access social media induce an altered state of consciousness, there are currently dozens of competing models and contested theories about what constitutes a cyber addiction to social media (Sun and Zhang 2021). Nevertheless, it remains clear to all researchers in reviews of the literature that our technology solicits increasingly addictive potential that has well-documented, negative consequences on every aspect of our lives: social, professional, personal, etc.
Because our devices and platforms impact our productivity and relationships in varied and evolving ways, the need to understand signs of addiction within it becomes vital for every concerned member of a technological society. In this evidence-based guide, see the signs of cyber addiction, their rampant consequences, and the potential for the effective societal treatment of social media addiction.
Signs of Social Media and Cyber Addiction
Social media use remains—and will continue to remain—a popular activity for youth, adolescents, and adults across the globe. While its effects on adolescents have been most widely studied, the signs of virtual addiction and social media misuse are likely shared by all individuals who enter a hypnotic, suggestible, and addictive state by engaging in excessive social media consumption and participation. Because the usage of technology, virtual platforms, and social media remain similar across populations, it seems reasonable that the signs of addiction would be comparable, but they are exaggerated with at-risk groups.
Who is Most Vulnerable to Social Media and Cyber Addiction?
In a post-COVID-19, cross-country comparative study of thousands of users in the U.S., UK, Australia, and Norway, researchers discovered that people, in general, are facing increasing levels of emotional distress including loneliness that are associated with frequent social media use. As individuals have felt more socially isolated in a physically distant world, they have turned to online platforms in order to fill a need to interact. But, the effect of this is an increased risk for negative health consequences as a result (Geirdal et al. 2020).
Even before the outbreak, it has been observed that adolescents present a particularly high risk for virtual and cyber addictions with even more pronounced and acute mental health effects. Among this group, they notice that social media overuse can actually predict a decline in mental health within one year, partially from the increased levels of social comparison and cyberbullying often involved (Boer et al. 2020). Those researchers note that social media use among adolescents affected their perceptions of themselves, their relationships with others, and their interest in school and other achievements—making them particularly high-risk for developing both cyber addiction and its symptoms.
Symptoms of Cyber Addiction and Social Media Disorders
Those who study internet, technological, and virtual addictions often categorize symptoms and define the severity of the disorder based on three aspects (Bozoglan 2018): the psychological, the social, and the cultural. All three areas play a role in maintaining the addiction as well as contributing to its development in the first place.
Psychological Indicators of Virtual Addiction
The look of virtual and social media addiction from a psychological standpoint deeply resembles other substance-based dependencies in its preoccupation with satisfaction of the activity (Bozoglan 2018; Weinstein and Lejoyeux 2010; Young 1998):
– Excessive preoccupation with social media use
– Poorly controlled behaviors surrounding device use
– Cross-addictions with online gaming, shopping, and gambling
– Huge investment of time, energy, and money in social media
– Impairment of cognitive and social functioning over 12 months
– Withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from social media
– Tolerance-building that requires increasing social media usage
– Unsuccessful attempts to limit and control online activity
– Loss of interest in other activities and relationships
– Continued use of social media despite negative impacts
– Deception of family and friends about the extent of the addiction
– Reliance on social media to avoid negative moods and emotional states
– Risking the loss of work or achievement to maintain social media usage
By looking at this list of psychological characteristics, we see that social media misuse disorders and virtual, behavioral addictions take the same shape. The user avoids negative emotional states using the addiction source and ignores the real (or possible) risks associated with increasing usage. In all, the psychological profile of internet, virtual, and social media addiction is nearly identical to substance-based disorders generally.
Social Symptoms of Social Media Addiction
Factors within the family and social environment of the individual can also contribute to being indicative of a potential social media or cyber addiction. Many of these include a family history of psychiatric and mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and alcoholism (Ko et al. 2012), but they can also include conditions of the household that can seed a social media use disorder (Lai and Kwan 2017):
– Frequent, allowed access to household computers and internet
– Limited access to other resources or activities other than social media
– Lowered levels of social support or work availability
– Group feelings of social inequality and lack of justice for social status
– High-usage social media patterns by peers, parents, and other influences
– Socially isolated group dynamics among adolescents
In the research, we see that the kind of example that parents and peers set can be just as important in identifying a possible cyber addiction as the availability of connected devices and feelings of inequality. It remains significant to understand the social symptoms of virtual and cyber addiction when these factors could contribute to the prevention of widespread dependency on social media and internet use.
Cultural Factors of Cyber Addiction
Finally, experts see the influence of culture on the creation, maintenance, and prevalence of social media addiction. The internet and social media platforms are a global influence on billions, and those in the US and Europe represent the largest number of users globally, begging researchers to consider the potential role of cultural acceptability in the development of such process and behavioral addictions. Cultural activities that predict a greater chance of developing a social media addiction include (Bozoglan 2018 p. 228):
– Watching TV during periods without other activities
– Chatting online as a means of regular communication
– Using the internet for leisure purposes on weekends
In technologically advanced societies where devices are used for leisure as well as communication, the research indicates that there is a greater chance of heightened social media usage, opening the possibility for risk factors like social comparison and cyberbullying as noted earlier. Alongside these uses of technology for leisure, the potential for virtual addiction opens when they replace other forms of entertainment and coping within a particular culture.
Effects of Social Media on Mental Health in the U.S.
With exception to very recent studies, the impact of social media and internet misuse on the general population’s mental health has been largely unstudied. While the symptoms of cyber and social media addiction become more clearly defined as fitting into psychiatric criteria, more study is indicated to fully expose the full effects of social media on the mental functioning and emotional wellbeing of our society.
Despite these limitations in the research, there seems to be clear evidence that social media has significant negative effects on young populations and can even indicate future, lifelong behavioral health struggles. Overall, social media use predicts declining mental health (particularly for depression) and coincides with lowered performance as well as increased use of mental health services (Braghieri, Levy, & Makarin 2021). Digging into more specific consequences, researchers have so far observed that the emergence of social media platforms like Facebook has coincided with declining mental health and achievement.
Mental Health and Social Media Interactions
Taking populations under the age of 30 years as a key example of impacts, social media appears as a sharp detriment to multiple aspects of a person’s life, especially among young women (Scott, Canivet & Ostergren 2020). These negative consequences are exacerbated with continued, prolonged, and increasing use of social media platforms in ways that some surprising statistics reveal. See in the following sections how social media overuse and internet addiction can impact everything from a young person’s academic achievement to their self-perception and thoughts about harming themselves or others.
Academic and Occupational Performance Gaps
In a particularly revealing study, academics discovered that the origination of Facebook at college campuses directly increased symptoms of impoverished mental health (Braghieri, Levy, & Makarin 2021). This is representative of other studies which indicate how students in the study show lower academic performance than peers without platforms like Facebook. They speculate that these negative consequences on academic performance begin with unwanted social comparisons that foster a preoccupation with concerns other than individual achievement. The same can be seen in the workplace.
From a sample of hundreds of full-time workers, a study discovered a positive connection between the use of social media and workplace burnout, meaning that social media addictions were a negative influence on the workplace and resulted in much poorer job performance (Zivnuska et al. 2019). Though, these impacts were hardly limited to the professional environment since workplace burnout was a factor of life balance and increased interpersonal conflict.
Mental Disorders, Decline, and Suicidal Ideation
In the few published and peer-reviewed studies available, researchers find an increased risk for poor mental health as a reaction to high-frequency social media use (Scott, Canivet & Ostergren 2020). Those who already have mental health conditions and concerns are likely to be even more affected by the social comparison, bullying, and negative perceptions that stem from social media influences. At the same time, these influences can become addictive, leading to negative cycles of deepening depression and anxiety. Among these concerns is the potential for increased depression, anxiety, and even suicidality among the young and old alike (Bettmann et al. 2021).
Public health officials often note the possible connection between social media and suicidal ideation or behavior (Luxton, June, & Fairall 2012). They assess that social media misuse and overuse can contribute to increased thoughts of harming oneself or others because of its inherent tendency for social comparison. It presents real concerns for parents and peers when cyberbullying remains prevalent in image- and selfie-centric societies.
The possibility of increased suicidal thoughts and behavior is just one of the ways that social media makes itself known as risk-heavy for adolescents and adults. Social media influences all kinds of self-perceptions, beliefs, and thought distortions that can adversely affect a person’s mental health and sense of wellbeing. Because of this, experts say that concrete clinical interventions need to be made during recovery—alongside conscientious choices by social media platform developers.
Clinical Advice on Recovering from Cyber Addiction for the Individual
Addictions of all kinds are both societal and individual phenomena. When it comes to the treatment of virtual addictions like social media misuse, the same psychological and therapeutic interventions can be used to prevent the development of an acute cyber addiction as with substance-based disorders. That means that each recovering patient at a treatment facility should be assessed for their own unique pattern of behavior that needs to be disrupted to alleviate the symptoms of the addiction.
Once tendencies and problematic personality traits are understood by clinicians and addiction specialists, researchers recommend approaches that directly address the patient’s behavior and thinking, such as untangling cognitive distortions and teaching new coping skills (Brand, Laier, & Young 2014). By treating the addiction with problem-solving and practical skills, people with social media addictions can hope for the same positive outcomes as alcohol dependency and other substance abuse disorders.
Skills-based approaches like this can also aid in the prevention of such addictions when implemented during adolescence by close friends, parents, educators, and even developers of social media platforms themselves. The aim would be to improve the mental health and life competency of those who are most at risk to battle the possibility of addiction as a maladaptive coping strategy. Luckily, this is a strategy that can be partially aided by social media platforms themselves.
Recommendations for Treating Social Media Addiction in Society
While social media often touts the promise of helping people to connect with friends, family, and passions—it too often leads to a sense of isolation that develops into real, hypnotic, and behavioral addiction requiring intervention. In addition to clinical approaches in mental health settings, some experts recommend the use of social media in helping patients to recover from their addiction and to mitigate its hurtful symptoms. In a survey of Twitter and Snapchat, hundreds of participants expressed interest in receiving treatment through social media platforms in some mode or manner (Naslund et al. 2019).
This is promising for a society in which it seems social media is here to stay. While clinicians and patients can put forth their own efforts to minimize the negative consequences of social media disorders on their lives, responsibility can also be placed with developers who can directly impact users’ understanding of their social media usage and its effect on their health. Users are actively interested in seeing more programs that promote their health and wellbeing through their favorite platforms, and it presents an option for giants like Facebook to remedy some of the damage that social comparison and cyberbullying have brought to modern society.
If anything, social media platforms can themselves make it easier to access mental health services and identify when help or personal intervention is needed to improve the user’s life skills and competencies. By offering ways to inform users of mental health concerns and keep them engaged in new services, society (and social media) can help heal the people that it would otherwise harm. These platforms already have the means and reach to influence millions of users to improve their health and recover from their most challenging mental health obstacles—cyber addiction included.
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