Key takeaways:

  • Similar to addictive drugs, social media content and likes can trigger the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, which may explain why some people report feeling addicted to these platforms
  • Some experts estimate up to 10 percent of people in the United States have social media addiction but it is hard to put an approximate figure as so many of us regularly engage with social platforms
  • Social media giants like Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and youtube pour billions of dollars into advertising and hire engineers that are paid to make content more addictive. These sites also track your activity, customizing your feed to show you posts you are most likely to look at, watch, or comment on

According to some surveys from 2020, Americans are spending as much as 17 hours per day looking at a screen, and a good portion of this time is spent on social media. [1] While kids, teens, and young people are the heaviest social media users, most adults are also active on at least one social media platform, and many report having trouble limiting their time on them. Also, there are many people who report social media has a negative impact on them, their mental health, and their relationships, but continue to use it anyway, causing some experts to wonder whether it’s possible to become addicted to social media.

Understanding social media addiction

The popularity of social media platforms has intensified over the past decade. Many of us still use social media to connect, share content like videos and memes, read the news, or just kill time. Some people even make successful careers out of social media, such as influencers. Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are more popular amongst teens and young adults whereas Facebook is generally used by all ages. 

It may be difficult to see how something so seemingly harmless can turn into an addiction. The truth is that like other types of behavioral addictions (gambling, porn, sex) constant or excessive use of social media can have a harmful influence on the way your brain process pleasure and reward. Similar to addictive drugs, social media content and likes can trigger the release of the pleasure chemical dopamine, which may explain why some people report feeling addicted to these platforms. [4]

One of the hallmark signs of addiction is continuing to use something even after it has clearly had negative impacts on your physical or mental health, relationships, work, or other important areas of life. More and more people are reporting that heavy social media use has a negative impact on their relationships, self-esteem, and makes them less productive at work or school, which is a red flag that may indicate addiction.

Some experts estimate up to 10 percent of people in the United States have social media addiction but it is hard to put an approximate figure as so many of us regularly engage with social platforms.

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Why is social media so addictive?

Behavioral addictions have much the same effect on the brain as drugs and alcohol, and the same is no different for social media. For those who engage with social media apps on a regular basis, the process of scrolling and intaking images, posting and receiving positive affirmation from others, and other stimuli create the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine reacts with neurotransmitters and creates feelings of pleasure and reward and causing the formation of “addiction pathways” in the brain that makes it hard to resist urges or stop the behavior. [4]

The more you engage with social media and receive the rewarding dopamine hit it creates, the more your brain will seek it out to get another hit. This can lead to people using social media for longer periods of time in order to get the same feeling. This leads to a tolerance forming, where the required level of stimuli needed (in this case social media) to get the same dopamine reaction increases. This tolerance can lead to dependence, where the user needs interaction with social media in order to feel normal. If left unchecked, the negative aspects of this dependence can lead to an addiction forming. 

Social media is in most cases free, readily available on modern devices, and culturally accepted and integrated into society. This means that people can spend excessive amounts of time and energy on social media apps without being scrutinized or questioned, and unlike many drugs, people usually don’t get in trouble for spending too much time on Facebook or Tiktok. 

Also, social media giants like Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and youtube pour billions of dollars into advertising and hire engineers that are paid to make content more addictive. These sites also track your activity, customizing your feed to show you posts you are most likely to look at, watch, or comment on. This all makes social media more addictive in nature and makes it harder for the average person to disconnect.

What are the downsides of social media addiction?

There is no harm in using social media platforms every now and then, even every day, but the more time spent on it the more likely you are to experience the negative aspects. Some possible negative consequences from overusing social media include:

  • Low self-esteem and comparing yourself to others

  • Increased isolation and loneliness

  • FOMO (Fear of missing out and feeling excluded)

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Social anxiety and embarrassment

  • Exposure to negative people, trolls, or bullies 

  • Disrupted sleep patterns when using at night because of the effects of blue light

  • Decreased physical activity, which may affect your overall health

  • Poor academic performance

  • Depressive symptoms

  • Ignoring the relationships in your “real” life

  • Reduced ability to empathize with others

  • Exposure to fake news and misinformation

  • Developing more extreme views because of one-sided customized content

  • developing an overall internet addiction

  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when not using social media websites

How do you know if you have social media addiction?

While there may be no medical diagnosis for social media addiction, a doctor or psychiatrist will be able to determine whether you display the hallmarks of addiction or if your social media use is at a safe level. 

Addiction is measured from mild to severe using 11 criteria of addiction outlined in the DSM-5. Those who meet two or fewer criteria would be classified as mild (not addicted) and those meeting six or more criteria would be classed as having a substance use disorder. [3]

  • More social media usage than intended

  • Experiencing cravings having frequent thoughts or urges to check social networking sites

  • Problems or conflicts in relationships because of social media use

  • Social media impairing your ability to function, work, or complete tasks

  • Cutting back on activities you enjoy to use social media more often

  • Experiencing physical or emotional discomfort when you stop or cut back

  • Trying unsuccessfully to stop or cut back on social media

  • Negative impacts to your physical or mental health

  • Continued use of social media despite problems, consequences, or impairments

  • Using in situations that are risky or hazardous (i.e. while driving or working)

  • reduced real-world social interaction

  • Needing more time/likes/follows to get the same amount of pleasure or enjoyment from social media

How can you decrease social media use?

It is always easier to overcome an addiction if prevention starts early, and by following a few of these steps you can get to a healthy level of social media use. Here are a few simple steps to combating a social networking addiction, or even cutting down if you are using apps too much:

  • Delete your social media apps from your smartphone to decrease the amount of time spent on social media overall

  • Turn off your personal phone during work, as well as during school, meals, and recreational activities. 

  • Adjust the setting on each social media app so you can turn off certain notifications

  • Set aside a certain amount of time dedicated to social media per day 

  • Turn on a timer to help keep you accountable for how much time you spend online

  • Leave your phone, tablet, and computer out of your bedroom

  • Take up a new hobby that’s not technology-related like sports, art, or classes

  • Make it a point to see your friends and family in person when possible

  • Take regular breaks from social media altogether to help find some real-life grounding

Final thoughts

If you notice some of the signs of social media addiction, work on trying to set some clear limits around how much or how often you log in, and how much time you spend on these platforms. Keep in mind these platforms are designed to get and hold your attention, so work on taking control of your usage instead of letting these sites control you. This way, social media can be something that enhances your quality of life, instead of diminishing it.