Teens are getting sicker as the pull of social media gets stronger.


Teens are getting sicker as the pull of social media gets stronger.

What is Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction falls under the category of a process or behavioral addiction. This addiction harms mental health and relationships, and replaces time spent engaged  in healthy pursuits. Social media is designed to capture and keep attention through dopamine-producing activities such as scrolling for novel content. Social media overuse is similar to other behavioral addictions like gambling, shopping, pornography, video gaming, and even eating. Because of the distracting, novel, and emotional nature of social media, it is easy to quickly grow dependent on it.

How does social media affect the brain?

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that is released in our brains as a reward for an activity. Each time we check social media, this chemical is released. MRI scans show that dopamine affects the same neural pathways as other addictions like gambling, pornography, and illegal drug use. Every notification, like, comment, and share, triggers a dopamine release. When this happens, again and again, our brains develop a tolerance for the chemical. As a result, we need to check social media even more to get the same good feeling. Other real-life activities can become boring because they do not trigger the same amount of dopamine. 

Young people are not equipped to deal with the risks of social media. Managing social media accounts is very stressful: it’s like taking care of a newborn baby. Remember that your teen is in the critical stage of figuring out her identity. She isn’t using social media to stay in touch with old friends, she is using Instagram and TikTok to create her brand/image. The “baby” requires 24-hours-a-day care. And just like real-life babies, social media can be stressful, distracting, and isolating as your child curates her brand and worries about her accounts throughout the day. In addition, the human brain becomes stressed by too many social relationships. There is a limit to how many close friends our teens can manage and that number is smaller than you think. 

What causes Social Media Addiction?

Digital addictions are driven by dopamine, easy and constant access, and persuasive design. Adults can become addicted to social media, but teens are at a higher risk for the following reasons: 

Developing brains: MRIs show that the human brain is not fully developed and connected in the executive areas until age 25. Young brains are in a growth stage and are more susceptible to all addictions. Expecting teens’ still-developing brains to self-limit a highly addictive activity is asking more than what they are physically capable of doing.

Persuasive design: Social media designers know that the human brain craves novelty. Every notification tugs at our kid’s attention and gives a hit of dopamine in anticipation of learning something new. Endless content assures that there will always be something novel and different to consume. This persuasive design also takes advantage of a teen’s fear of missing out on online activities, their fear that others are criticizing them, and their fear that they are not as good as their peers. 

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Humans are built for connection with others and loneliness is one of a teen’s biggest fears. Being a part of the crowd is a survival instinct, so it is normal for teens to be driven to social media. On the surface, it may look like this need for belonging is being met, but online interactions will never satisfy a teen’s core need for connection. In fact, the more time a teen spends on social media the more lonely they feel. While the drive to belong is healthy, trying to fill that void via social media is not. 

Social media and your mental health

Today’s teens are more mentally fragile and more unhappy due to social media according to Dr. Jean Twenge. She states, “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having a profound effect on their lives and making them seriously unhappy.” 

Social media overuse can make teens anxious, stressed, and depressed. Many parents worry that their child will be a social outcast without it, but instead, studies show that social media makes teens more isolated and more prone to mental health problems. They are not feeling connected, they are feeling rejected and sad. 

  • Depression. The time teens spend scrolling apps replaces face-to-face interactions with parents and friends. Online exposure to everyone’s fun-filled lives leads to sadness and depression over time. In addition, obsession with social media prevents  kids from engaging in memory-making activities. No teen would say, “Remember last Christmas when I was on social media the whole time?” Their distance from real life weakens the family connection which also leads to depression. 
  • Detachment. Lost connections and lost attachments with family and friends is damaging to teen mental health. Every minute teens spend on social media is time taken from being with people in person. Parents often realize how important it is for young children to bond and attach, but it’s critical to foster attachment during the teenage years as well. While peers are important, adults should remain the primary influence in their child’s life. Social media overuse can easily cause a shift from healthy parent attachments to unstable peer attachments. 
  • Comparison and rejection. Constant comparison damages self-esteem and heightens feelings of rejection for adults and teens alike, but teens have more to lose. Some teens may suffer from Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria which is defined as extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations

What are the symptoms of social media addiction?

The compulsive checking of social media accounts for likes, shares, and comments, and the prioritization of social capital over other life activities is common in individuals with social media addiction. 

Is your teen addicted to social media? It takes an attentive parent to be aware of the warning signs. Here are some questions to consider.

Does your child...

If you answered YES to the majority of these questions, it may be time to make some changes.

How can you decrease social media use?

Like with any addiction or bad habit, the best way to cut back on social media use is to remove access. Here are some tips to get started:

Replace the smartphone with a talk/text phone.  It is easy to think that we all have to jump on the culture train early and just give our teens smartphones, but when you consider the adolescent window of development, choosing a non-data phone over a smartphone is an excellent solution. No longer would they have the distracting internet in their pockets 24/7. This option comes with great advantages, including the ability to focus more time on school, relationships, and healthy activities during a time in development when they are programmed to reach their highest potential. Teens only have 48 months during the high school years to learn the life skills they will need to thrive as adults, develop good habits, and stay connected to their families and the caring adults in their lives.

Plan face-to-face time with their friends. One way to overcome an addiction is to replace it. Replace digital time with in-person time with friends. Teens crave being with friends and in-person social gatherings are always better than scrolling on social media. Let your house be the house where peers gather. Plan regular get-togethers: host movie and board game nights, pizza cooking parties, and bonfires. Encourage teens to invite friends over on a regular basis and have them organize the event to build even more life skills. 

Focus on strengthening family attachment. Your teen’s social media time has likely replaced the important role of family time in his life. Designate non-tech times during the week and weekends to support your teen’s need for family attachment. This will require some purposeful work on your part. Don’t expect your teen to meet you halfway on this. You’ll need to take the lead and show your unconditional love regardless of how your teen responds.

Can you treat social media addiction?

Yes! Like any other dependency, it is important to remove access to the problematic activity. Social Media is an entertainment technology, it is not necessary for social development, learning, or future success. Managing social media accounts is a full-time job for teenagers and it becomes another full-time job for the parents attempting to monitor them.

When you know better, you do better. We have more research around digital addictions than we have ever had before. We know that all these digital addictions can be easily prevented. Research is conclusive: smartphones are too risky for teenagers. There are wonderful screen alternatives that come with very little risk. ScreenStrong can give you the answers, community, and support you need to raise happier, healthier kids. It’s time to stand up for kids, stand out from the crowd, and be ScreenStrong.

Disclaimer: This information is not a replacement for the therapy or treatment center necessary to help an at-risk or addicted child. If you feel like your child will potentially do bodily harm to you, himself or herself, you need to seek professional help.

Podcast Episodes

Recent Posts

Why WAP Matters

By Dr. Leonard Sax, originally published on The record-smashing success of WAP is a warning to parents. You need to know what your kid

Read More »

Autism, Anxiety & Screen Use

Could a break from screens give relief to my daughter with autism who was suffering from anxiety? Years ago, we became a screen-free family. I

Read More »