This morning, just after your eyes popped open, what did you do? Did you kiss your spouse, walk on the beach, enjoy a quiet cup of coffee on the balcony? Or maybe you’re like the large majority of us: You grabbed your smart phone off the night stand to check messages.
And that’s just the start, for many, of a fiercely connected day. We spend hours trolling social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube, mindlessly searching for likes, a laugh, some news.
Is this a productive use of time, or are we simply chasing validation?
Some feel that the new “cool” is being out of touch. Celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Alec Baldwin, Adele and many others take frequent breaks from their massive social media audiences. Meghan Markle deactivated her accounts after her engagement to Prince Harry. Most of them say they’ve grown weary of being criticized by tens of millions of strangers.
Even for average people, experts say, social media usage can morph into harmful addiction. But where, specifically, is that line crossed? Addiction refers to compulsive behavior that leads to negative effects such as interference with work, school, or relationships. But whether excessive social networking is a disease is being hotly debated. The term “Internet Addiction Disorder” was first coined in the 1990s, when the Internet’s popularity exploded. But so far, the American Psychological Association has refused to add this affliction to its official list of disorders.
Researchers at Chicago University recently found that social media addiction can prove stronger than addiction to cigarettes and alcohol. Harvard University researchers scanned people’s brains to track the effects of people talking about themselves, which is mostly what people do on social media. They found that this kind of communication stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers in similar fashion as sex and food.
Across society, online engagement is rapidly taking the place of face-to-face interactions, according to a Harvard Business Review study. The results showed that social media interactions did not strengthen emotional well-being nearly as much as in-person social interactions did.
Sherry Turkle, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, theorizes that social media can weaken human ties. In her book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” she claims that, ironically, these activities can leave people feeling lonely and disconnected to the world around them and can lead to relationship problems.
Social media addiction is clearly more serious for young people than for adults. A Centers for Disease Control study released in 2015 found that the increase in depression and suicide in teenagers in recent years could be linked to social media overuse. The five-year study found that when young people give up their phones, they perform worse on mental tasks and experience physical withdrawal symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Study author Jean Twenge says that excessive social media use by kids is a dangerous trend because even though it looks like positive social interaction, the reality is often far from it. Checking and posting provide an instant “high,” but the cumulative effects are often damaging, because young people tend to compare themselves negatively to others. They’re much better off, Twenge says, interacting in “real life” with friends and family.
Other researchers have concluded that if done at reasonable levels, social networking can make people feel better about themselves and more connected to society. These communication platforms have often provided a pivot for societal change and can be invaluable when used in response to natural disasters and emergencies.
Bottom line: Social media can be a great way to stay connected and entertained, but, if overused or abused – especially when it is substituted for personal interactions – can very quickly transform itself into “antisocial media.”