This piece was written by one of our contributors; mental health researcher – Joe O’Brien.
Have you ever taken your phone from your pocket, unlocked it and stared at the screen (which has no new notifications), and only then do you realise you haven’t taken it out for any particular purpose? I recently undertook an experiment on myself using an app called Moment and which counts how often you open your phone. The app set me a target of opening my phone 41 times in a day, 5 times every 2 hours if you’re awake for 16 hours. I thought it was achievable, as someone who thinks they manage the relationship with their phone quite well.
I checked my phone 156 times that day – approximately 3 times every twenty minutes…
Technology as an addiction
So, am I addicted? Is society addicted? As of now, social media/technology is not classed as an addiction according to the DSM (The Diagnostic Manual for mental health disorders), however there are arguments for including it. Why? If we look at what criteria are included for the current addictions, they include some things that are particularly relevant to social media. For example, the inability to control use, to use compulsively, to have a withdrawal response, mood alteration, and to have a negative influence on the individual’s life. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but certainly applies to some.
Taking a look at the research, what aspects of “addiction” does it fulfil? I’ll be covering two aspects which are relevant in my reading of the literature, and that is the withdrawal response and the impact on people’s wellbeing.
A study by Reed and colleagues found that in problematic internet users after only a 15-minute internet session, there were measurable, significant physical and psychological changes (1). You may think “I’m not a problematic internet user”, however the average person in the study fell into the category of problematic internet use (you can check out the problematic signs at the bottom of this piece). What the study also found was that heart rate and blood pressure increased in withdrawal from the internet, after just a 15-minute session. They also found that the higher the score on internet use, the higher the feelings of both anxiety and negative mood. The researchers explained that the withdrawal reaction mirrored the withdrawal of some sedatives, meaning that functionally, technology may be functioning as a sedative (something which can reduce or masks feelings of agitation/irritability). So, when we consider if technology should be classed as an addiction, there are certainly arguments for that case.
One of the potential explanations for why the age of social media may be having a profound impact on our wellbeing could be down to comparison; comparing ourselves to the lives of others. There are numerous studies investigating the link between comparison and self-esteem, and there is a pretty resounding conclusion – that social media use is related to more self-comparison, and in turn, lower self-esteem(2,3). A popular saying is that “we’re comparing ourselves to other people’s highlight reels”, but the issue is that even being aware of this, may not mitigate the risk of constant exposure to the idyllic lifestyle, body image, and perceived success we’re viewing online. What this means is that exposure may be manifesting in these negative wellbeing outcomes, without the user having to actively engage in self-comparison; it might be sub-conscious or implicit. One quote that I often use comes to mind, and that is – “If you can’t be happy with what you have now, what makes you think you’ll be happy with more?”
What this quote means, and what needs explaining, is that if you can’t find the positives in life at the moment, striving to have the “perfect” body, likely won’t change that mindset because if you can’t find happiness now, it’s likely you won’t be able to see it no matter what the external circumstances are – whether that’s more social media followers, losing weight, changing your body image, financial improvement, and so on. Happiness is an internal state and external factors won’t be able to influence that state to the extent people expect. If you’re always comparing yourself to others, there will always be something you don’t have. Instead of looking externally at what will make you happier, look at what could make you happy right now. Being grateful for what you have right now is a skill. If you can’t do that it’s very easy to continue down the path of saying “If I had this one thing, I’d be happier”, but there’s always another step; there’s always something else. You can never reach the last step because the steps are never-ending. Instead of looking for what you could have, look at what you do have.
When it comes to social media, I like to ask myself the following on a regular basis.
- Does this person add value to my life day to day?
- Have I learned anything from them?
- Has following them or being friends with them bettered me as a person, and how?
- Does following their account promote my wellbeing, and how?
If the answer to these questions is no, I (generally) remove them. If someone isn’t adding value to your life, there’s no need for them to be there. If you want to better yourself as a person, surround yourself with people, values, and messages that you believe in. Don’t expose yourself to messages that conflict with who you are as a person.
Social media detox
Detoxing from social media has been shown to have some quite astounding results in terms of improving wellbeing markers. In one research study, a five-day detox from Facebook showed a decrease in cortisol levels (the stress hormone)(4), as well as other research showing a 7-day break was associated with more positive emotions and life satisfaction (5). These studies are by no means concrete causal evidence, and the social media research is only in its infancy in terms of depth, however there is certainly motive for self-evaluating how social media affects our society and ourselves. My recommendation would be to use social media as the social tool its title promises – use social media to facilitate real life interaction and form positive relationships with the people who are close to you.
The proposed criteria for smartphone addiction are as follows(6):
- Failure to resist impulses to use
- Impact on mood
- Using for excessive periods/longer than intended
- Continued use despite a negative impact on mental/physical wellbeing
- Impacting functioning in daily life (relationships/job/school/driving)
If you struggle with any of the above, take steps to better manage your smartphone use. Talk to a mental health professional or your GP if it’s having an impact on your mental health. From the data, discontinuing use can be helpful in improving wellbeing.
(1) Reed P, Romano M, Re F, Roaro A, Osborne LA, Viganò C, et al. Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users. PLOS ONE. 2017 May 25;12(5):e0178480.
(2) Hanna E, Ward LM, Seabrook RC, Jerald M, Reed L, Giaccardi S, et al. Contributions of Social Comparison and Self-Objectification in Mediating Associations Between Facebook Use and Emergent Adults’ Psychological Well-Being. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking. 2017 Mar;20(3):172–9.
(3) Vogel EA, Rose JP, Roberts LR, Eckles K. Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 2014 Oct;3(4):206–22.
(4) Vanman EJ, Baker R, Tobin SJ. The burden of online friends: the effects of giving up Facebook on stress and well-being. The Journal of Social Psychology. 2018 Jul 4;158(4):496–507.
(5) Tromholt M. The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking. 2016 Nov;19(11):661–6.
(6) Lin Y-H, Chiang C-L, Lin P-H, Chang L-R, Ko C-H, Lee Y-H, et al. Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Smartphone Addiction. PLoS One [Internet]. 2016 Nov 15 [cited 2019 May 29];11(11). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112893/