Social Media Addiction: A Personal Story
“persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”
— Merriam Webster broad definition of addiction
When you hear the word addiction, it probably brings drugs to mind first. Perhaps something serious like cocaine or heroin. Perhaps a prescription drug like painkillers. There are other kinds of addiction that have been mentioned in the news: food, sex, video games, and social media.
You may be thinking, “Hold on. Webster defines addiction as the use of something harmful. How can social media be harmful?” Well, if you’re asking that question, I’m going to assume that you’ve never used it.
I’m joking! Well, mostly joking. Let’s take each part of the definition in turn.
Persistent, compulsive use
How many social media accounts do you have? How many times do you check them each day? How long do you spend on each one when you do check it? If you have a smartphone, do you have notifications turned on? How long do you wait to investigate when you hear that sound?
Some of those questions are easy to answer. I have two social media accounts: Facebook and Instagram. I have Instagram notifications turned on and I usually investigate less than five minutes after getting one. I don’t use the regular Facebook app, so I don’t get notifications for that. However, I do have the Messenger app, so I receive notifications from it, and I also investigate within five minutes unless I am driving. Though if I get a notification while driving, the urge to check is almost overwhelming.
Even if I get no notifications, I will still check each account just in case I missed something or a notification didn’t come through.
Others of those questions are difficult to answer. I don’t honestly know how many individual times per day I check each account. I just do it when I’m bored or to break up a work stretch or if it just feels like it’s been too long. The amount of time I’m spending is similarly difficult to quantify. Time passes as I scroll through my feed and I don’t really notice it. I do know it is a significant amount.
Of a substance … to be harmful
Taking out the middle of this statement for a minute, is social media harmful? Certainly it takes up time that we could be using for more productive things. Notifications are a distraction from work, driving, relationship moments. But is it actually harming us?
There are a gajillion studies and news stories on the effects of social media use. I’m going to speak from my own personal experience. Is social media harmful to me? I’d honestly have to say that it is.
My attention span is shorter. I can’t work for long periods of time without wondering what is happening on my social media. It starts as a vague thought and eventually becomes something I can’t ignore any longer that interferes with my ability to concentrate. I have to know what is going on, so I check.
My need for external validation is greater. Did I do a good thing if I didn’t post it on Facebook and receive a bunch of thumbs up and hearts? The drive to post things I did to get the ego boost from others is strong. Similarly strong is the drive to post things that are getting me down so I can get a jolt of sympathy. I don’t need to support my own self esteem or mental health anymore, the internet will do it for me. If I post something and no one reacts, did I say something offensive or does everyone hate me?
My ability to exist alone in my own head is atrophied. Social media as a distraction from physical activities is mirrored by the mental distraction. If my inner voice is being mean or I’m having an existential moment or my emotions are out of wack — I don’t need to actually deal with any of that. Instead, I can numb my mind with scrolling through the carefully curated happy lives of my friends. This serves the dual purpose of not requiring me to think and allowing me to compare the chaos in my own head to the perceived happiness in others. And I always suffer my comparison.
My ability to gauge whether I’m doing okay in life is shot. Connected to the previous point is that I can’t figure out if I’m doing okay anymore. Social media encourages us to look at our peers and see how they’re doing and thereby gauge where we are doing in comparison. Nowadays, everyone on social media is doing great. You know your life isn’t perfect, but you post mostly good stuff also. How can you tell if you’re on track or not if everyone else has awesome lives and yours sucks? Luckily for me, most of my friends are actually pretty honest on social media so this one isn’t such a big deal. But I do have an unconventional lifestyle. I don’t want to compare my life to anyone else’s, but it is so hard to resist that urge. After all, how else are we supposed to know how we are doing?
So in summary, social media use tends to make me self conscious due to comparison, less emotionally stable because I’m looking outward for validation, less comfortable with myself in general, and less able to concentrate to get necessary tasks done.
But I keep using it anyway.
Known by the user
Do I know that social media is doing all of this to me? Yes. Do I use it persistently anyway? Another yes. I absolutely know what is happening, but still continue to use it.
Why? Well, there are a few good reasons. One is to keep in contact with friends and family. The messaging feature is very useful and many members of my family post about their lives on Facebook. Another reason is for work. I have a social media account for my business and I manage another, so I need to be online on a regular basis. I also try to get leads for work through Facebook groups and Instagram. Third is to get advice on my lifestyle. I’m traveling the country and there are a lot of ins and outs for a successful nomadic lifestyle. There are Facebook groups dedicated to this, and I regularly get useful tips and tricks. I get enough perceived benefit that it is worth the known downsides.
That is an important distinction: perceived benefits. Could I communicate with friends and family without social media? Sure, but it would be less convenient. Could I operate a business without social media? Yes. I couldn’t do the job of social media management, but I could do something else.
So all of the perceived benefits are replaceable. But I don’t.
Am I addicted?
Absolutely. I tried to go a single day without checking social media, and it was very difficult. I thought about checking several times. I negotiated with myself that one lapse wouldn’t be a big deal. I wondered endlessly about what was happening, what I was missing. Then it turned dark. Would anyone even notice I wasn’t online? Maybe nobody cared about my posts and comments anyway. All of this in the span of maybe 12–14 hours (that I was awake that day). The next day I checked Facebook first thing upon waking up.
What am I doing about it?
I am putting my phone into airplane mode whenever I am engaged in a task or driving so there are no notifications to distract me. I am working on a new morning routine that does not include checking social media first thing before I even get out of bed. I installed the Messenger app so I don’t have to open Facebook itself to access the chat features, which cuts down on my mindless scrolling after every exchange.
Relying on social media usage for work and lifestyle assistance makes limiting my time difficult for me, but I am making an effort to back off.