Why does it seem like so many people are unable to put down their phones and turn off social media? According to some studies, social media isn’t just a way for people to stay in contact with one another ⁠— it’s a way to get attention and feel good.

Some outlets are even comparing social media usage to gambling and using drugs. These behaviors all create feelings of pleasure, even though they can lead to problems later on. Regardless of the consequences, people continue to use social media, gamble and use substances. Though social media may not have the same destructive outcomes as the other two examples, it can still negatively impact a person’s mental health.

Why Is Social Media Addictive?

Social media use can lead to symptoms that are very similar to substance use disorders. Essentially, the use of social media creates rewarding, pleasurable feelings that can cause mood changes. People can build a tolerance to social media and even experience psychological withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. This development can lead to social media addiction, where people continue to use it in order to escape unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Variability of Rewards

The biggest cause behind social media addiction is technology’s variability of rewards. Social media provides us with positive and negative reinforcement, which always keeps us guessing how to “win” on these online platforms.

For example, someone may post a selfie that receives a lot of responses, leading to pleasurable feelings about themselves. When they post another selfie and do not receive the same response, they may wonder what they can do differently to achieve the same success. This can cause them to pour more time into social media — they want to be rewarded again.

Incentives

Social media outlets also incentivize us to use them. High-status celebrities or businesses may offer giveaways to their followers, asking them to share information with friends for a higher chance of winning. People see their idols interacting with fans, and they also want to be able to communicate with these celebrities. Restaurants and delivery services constantly advertise deals for social media users, rewarding them for checking in or using their services online. All of these can easily make people feel as if they’re “missing out” when they’re not on social media.

Recent Social Media Addiction Research and Statistics

It’s estimated that around 12% of social media users have an addiction to social media. In addition, 2019 statistics about social media use show:

  • 74% of Facebook users visit the platform each day
  • 63% of Instagram users visit the platform each day
  • 61% of Snapchat users visit the platform each day

The most popular platform is Facebook, which is used by 69% of adults in the United States.

Comparing Social Media Addiction to Gambling Addiction and Drug Addiction

Studies about social media addiction often compare it to gambling and drug addictions. It makes sense to do so because these behaviors each revolve around achieving pleasurable feelings. When people are not feeding their addiction, they experience withdrawal that makes them want to go back to social media, gambling or drugs.

Social media is similar to gambling because they can both provide instantaneous rewards. On sites like Facebook, you refresh your news feed and are given more information. When you post a story or picture, the notifications that roll in give you a pleasurable feeling.

Social Media Addiction Symptoms

Dr. James Roberts of Baylor University has spent time researching the effects of social media on people’s mental health. Through his work, he’s found certain symptoms that people with social media addiction share. These symptoms include:

  • Using social media throughout the entire day
  • Depending on social media for excitement throughout the day
  • Finding yourself needing to use more and more social media for the same pleasurable effects
  • Feeling nervous or like you’re “missing out” when not on social media
  • Conflicts with friends or distractions at work or school due to social media
  • An inability to cut back on social media use

Effects of Addiction to Social Media

Social media has been shown to cause higher rates of depression and anxiety. In addition, social media affects the way people interact in face-to-face environments. When people get used to interacting through technology, it can become harder to interact in person.

Many people report that they find their lives being ruined by social media. Their constant usage leads them to rely on social media even though it is destroying their careers and personal relationships. They become distracted, unproductive and depressed, but they still need social media.