‘I must check everything, I must be updated’

Lifeline: The average internet user spends over two hours on social media every day.

How serious is social media addiction? With reports of teens dangerously hooked on sites like Instagram and Snapchat, researchers are racing to discover how addictive social media really is.

For 15-year-old Brooke, her smartphone was more than just a device: “It was my heart. I couldn’t put it down… It felt like a part of me.”

Why? Because her phone was the gateway to the world of social media: “FaceTime, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, Kik”, Brooke used them all — even creating multiple accounts (she had six different Instagram profiles).

Eventually, her online life became all-consuming: “It was always about refreshing my feed and I’d stay up until like 4:30 in the morning.”

While she cultivated online connections, real-life bonds disintegrated. “There was no relationship”, her father recalls: “We were just a means to provide her with food and shelter and money... and a phone.”

Brooke’s story may sound extreme, but some worry that increasing numbers of teenagers are becoming addicted to social media — with potentially disastrous effects on their mental health. And there is some scientific evidence backing up these concerns.

One study claims that the continuous rewards social media gives its users (such as “likes”) could make some users addicted. Scientists also claim that those spending more than two hours a day on social media are more likely to report mental health problems.

Instagram may be one of the worst offenders: a survey of young people ranked it the most detrimental for health issues like anxiety and depression.

But the case against social media is not decisive. A Unicef report states that it can be “beneficial” for some children because it enhances existing relationships. And psychologist Andrew Przybylski claims that moderate use is not “intrinsically harmful”.

Part of the problem lies in defining what constitutes addiction. Where hours on social media could damage one teenager’s mental health, the same experience may leave another unharmed.

Nonetheless, some are taking action. The French government has proposed banning phones in schools, as well as a law requiring under-16s to get parental permission before opening Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram accounts.

But how worried should we be about social media addiction?

Face-hooked

Very worried, some argue. We must be less obsessed with studies and listen to sufferers themselves. Their message is clear: social media can be addictive, and the effects are disastrous for mental health. If companies and governments continue to ignore this the crisis will only get worse.

We need a balanced response, others respond. Social media has a positive influence on many lives, and harsh crackdowns will unfairly impinge on the silent majority. The fact is that scientists don’t know how harmful it really is, therefore any big policies must wait for a clearer consensus to develop.

You Decide

  1. Does social media make people more antisocial?
  2. Is social media addictive?

Activities

  1. In small groups write down what you think are the three most popular social media platforms among people your age. For each one write down three positive and three negative effects of using them. Overall, would you say social media is good or bad?
  2. Write down an estimate of how long you think you spend on social media each week. Then, for one week, keep a log of the amount of time you actually spend on these platforms each day. How does the reality compare to your estimate? Is this surprising?

Some People Say...

“The internet has been a boon and a curse for teenagers.”

J.K. Rowling

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Social media addiction is not an official mental health disorder, with such a classification requiring more research. According to the Global Web Index, the average internet user spends over two hours per day on social media. While addictive behaviours have been recorded in some social media users, many are able to use it without major disruption to their everyday lives.
What do we not know?
Anecdotal evidence from doctors, teachers and teenagers suggests that social media may contribute to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, however there is currently no scientific consensus that social media directly causes these conditions.

Word Watch

Brooke
Read about Brooke’s story by following the link under Become An Expert.
Addicted
Evidence of social media addiction is largely anecdotal, and it has not been designated an official mental health disorder. However, research into the issue is ongoing.
Study
“Social Networking Addiction: An Overview of Preliminary Findings”, by Mark D. Griffiths.
Scientists
Research based on a survey of 753 students, lead by H. Sampasa-Kanyinga in 2015.
Survey
Based on a 2017 survey by Britain’s Royal Society for Public Health.
Intrinsically
This means that harm is not necessarily due to the social media platforms themselves, but the context in which they are used.
Banning
Mobile phones have already been banned in classrooms, but this legislation would prevent students from using them during breaks, between lessons and at mealtimes.