Am I Addicted to Social Media?

While recently sitting in a coffee shop, I happen to overhear two young ladies, whom I’m guessing were in their early-20s, discussing their addiction to Facebook. As one woman talked, the other was feverishly thumb-typing on her cell phone, nodding her head in agreement.

The one woman, who was not on her phone, watched fast fingers, McGee, take pictures of a half-eaten piece of cherry cheesecake in front of her and post it to social media. I overheard the non-typist say “Think you could give it a break for five minutes,” to which the typist tapped in a few more words, laid the phone down on the table and looked up at her friend with an animated clown-face. I couldn’t quite make out what the non-typist said to her, but I could tell she wasn’t happy.

As I scanned the rest of the room, I noticed that most people, sitting alone or with someone else, had their cellphone clutched in their hands, typing away to the virtual world.

What was refreshing was the little old couple sitting across from each other. She handed him a serviette to wipe the filling from his butter tart that had dripped down his chin, and he wiped his face as he smiled at her and gave a little chuckle. Oblivious to all of the technology that surrounded them, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might think of everyone who has their phone stuck in their face today.

Social media, whether Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or Snapchat, have no doubt broadened our worldview and increased our connectivity with the larger world in a staggering way.

In fact, social media offers many benefits that were unknown to us in the pre-social-media era, including access to worldwide news, networking and collaborations with people located in different geographical zones, and even marketing new business ideas.  It is a blessing for business entrepreneurs, consumers, and those looking to build and expand professional networks.

Moreover, social media sites such as Facebook have enabled us to reconnect with our old friends going back all the way to school, expand our online social circle, join a networking event remotely; or perhaps, follow the everyday lives of our favourite celebrities. Social media has literally turned the world into a “global village” – a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan and Powers 1992) to describe how the world has shrunk due to immense technological advances in communications.

Most of us are reaping these benefits, but only some of us can control the way we make use of social media and set limits; so that we do not get swayed by the overwhelming information and endless entertainment available online.

People, not just youngsters but also adults, are being controlled by social media, causing serious issues of addiction and low self-esteem.

 

Obsession with Likes

Social media has changed the way we form interpersonal relationships and connect with the outside world. Replacing face-to-face interactions, our lives are lived to a large extent in a virtual world where we are connected to a large number of friends, acquaintances, and even people whom we hardly know.

This virtual world is unrealistically competitive, with people striving to prove their worth, outdoing one another’s efforts to present a perfect version of themselves, and seeking the approval of others. There is an uncontrollable fixation with likes, comments, and tagging on social media platforms.

A person detached from the ‘madness’ of social media might find this online behaviour totally ridiculous to the point of being hilarious. But for the large numbers actively using social media, the world of ‘likes’ is the norm.

The line between normality and addition gets blurred with the powerful control of social media over our lives. The ‘like’ button is always active at the back of our minds as we lead our mundane everyday lives – that seemingly innocuous activity of sipping coffee at this fancy cafe must be announced on Facebook; that last bite of cake must be clicked and uploaded on Instagram; the casual meeting with a bunch of friends must be pictured and put on social media; the new hair-cut selfie is a must; the book that I am reading must be announced on Facebook and Instagram; vacations, no matter how enjoyable, are not worthy enough, if their pictures are not posted on these sites for everyone to see. Moments of triumph in life, such as landing a new job are not satisfactory enough if these are not declared and publicized online. The story doesn’t end here but instead triggers a desire for likes and appreciative comments on posts publicizing them.

While some people can enjoy this constant cycle of posts and likes, for others, this obsession causes anxiety, depression, and at times, low self-esteem. A ‘like’ boosts morale only temporarily, driving the person to seek constant self-approval through more posts and likes. The process is cyclic, causing restlessness and serious social media dependency symptoms. It is often difficult to get out of this obsessive trap of social media, given the power it holds on our lives.

 

Psychology of Social Media Likes

Social media has been a subject of many psychological studies that have pointed to the superficial nature of our virtual lives, where we present the best versions of ourselves.

Everyday online behavior most often involves posting the best-photoshopped selfie; describing how super-amazing one’s love life is, declaring how successful we are in our lives, bragging about the best vacations we had in Costa Rica; and so on. It is a filtered, edited version of people’s lives, and everyone around us looks so happy, accomplished, beautiful, and successful.

This superficial virtual world can have very real psychological effects on many of us. It drives people to prove their worth in this impossibly competitive space. They get addicted to social media, projecting and publicizing themselves, and continually looking for likes and comments.

How many times have you checked your smartphone every few seconds or minutes to see the number of likes on your most recent post? Do you feel excited or happy every time you see new notifications that somebody has liked your picture or post? Has a negative comment affected your psyche in an outsized way? Or have you ever felt unworthy if your post didn’t get enough likes?

Psychologists have explained that addiction to social media does not come without consequence. In his book Irresistible, Adam Alter (Alter 2017), a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, explains how the rise of technology, including social media is simply overpowering, leading to addiction and having a huge impact on our well-being, identity, and self-esteem.

Online behaviour or social grooming can affect our self-esteem because everyone around looks like an achiever, and this unrealistic competition can affect people’s sense of identity. H.T Chou and N Edge (Chou and Edge 2012), who has researched social media behaviour, point out that to chronic social media users’ other people in the virtual world seem happier and having better lives; often causing unhappiness and loss of confidence.

A few studies have also stated that it is often not easy to get out of this trap, and it might be harder to avoid social media than other forms of addiction such as cigarettes and alcohol.

A lot of us spend more time on social media, trying to boost our morale and looking for likes and approval instead of having face-to-face conversations and indulging in more creative and satisfying activities.

For those having low self-esteem, few likes might create a momentary high and make them fixated to social media. But on the other side, if no one hits a like on their posts, or if someone posts negative comments on their updates, people with low self-esteem may feel dejected.

Researchers at the University of Strathclyde, Ohio University and the University of Iowa have pointed out a negative link between women social media users and their perception of body image.

Women who spend more time on Instagram and Facebook are fed with super-thin filtered and photoshopped images of friends, models, and celebrities all the time. Petya Eckler, of the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, was cited in a BBC (Briggs 2014) article, as saying that “The fascination with celebrities, their bodies, clothes, and appearance have all increased the pressure that people typically feel at a time when they seek to establish their own identities and when their bodies are growing and changing.” This kind of social media intervention in our lives is bound to create identity insecurities and low self-esteem among women.

It is not just women, but also men, who are feeling the pressure to look good and post perfect selfies. A friend and a colleague of mine told me that he needs to start weaning himself off Facebook, as his constant impulse to check his phone is driving his wife crazy. He also shared that he knows it’s become an addiction and said that he sometimes checks his phone in the middle of the night.

Some of us are able to engage in social media in a limited way or are not affected by the evaluation people make of ourselves. But many of us are addicted to social media and unaware of our online obsession and the ways it is affecting our self-esteem and well-being.

It is astounding that not just youngsters and middle-aged adults but even elderly people are sometimes affected by the ‘like-comment’ syndrome.

 

Overcoming Addiction

The first step to overcoming social media addiction is coming to realize that one is addicted and a willingness to reduce one’s dependence on it. A firm belief that one should be in control of one’s online behaviour rather than letting digital technology simply dominate our lives goes a long way in altering social media’s effects on us.

Psychologists have suggested minimizing rather than totally eliminating one’s engagement with social media sites. One can put a strict timer to keep a check on one’s social grooming behaviour and can even use the reward-punishment method to overcome the addiction successfully.

We sometimes need to set limits on ourselves the same way we set limits on screen time for kids. It might sound a little strange, but it is a technique that really works to overcome serious addiction. Gradually, removing Facebook or Instagram apps from the phone has been suggested by many as an excellent idea to reduce frequent browsing. It is better to have these apps installed on our laptops or tablets rather than the phone, since the phone is accessible to us all the time, and creates in us an auto-response of checking our social media profiles.

People who notice serious mental health issues that cannot be overcome by these techniques should not hesitate to talk to someone, and perhaps seek professional help. Here’s a great 7-minute video to watch by Sangita Patel, here.

Conclusion

Social media can be a powerful medium for connectivity provided its participants use it wisely rather than letting it take control of their lives.

It is important to remember that the real world is more important than the virtual one. In particular, the virtual world of social media is dominated by an overtly positive and happy projection of its users; if not taken with a grain of salt, it may lead one to have self-esteem issues in the real world!

References

Alter, A. 2017. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin.

Briggs, H. 2014. “’Selfie’ body image warning issued”.

BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-26952394

Chou, H. T. And Edge, N. 2012. “They are happier and having better lives than I am”: The impact of using Facebook on perceptions of others’ lives.

Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(2), 117–121.

McLuhan, M and Powers, B. R. 1992. The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. Oxford University Press.