Understanding internet and social media addiction

man chained to a computer monitor. internet addiction concept

In the past couple of decades, there has been an immense sweeping change across the world. It is a technological revolution that started in 1989 when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working in Switzerland.

Since then, the use of – and utter reliance on – the internet has exploded. For instance, in 1990 less than one percent of the US population used the internet; now it is more than 90 percent.

Social media use within that time, encouraged by major advances in cell phones and other devices, has also boomed. Most people who have ever used the internet or social media will perhaps understand the addictive nature of these.

They are set up so that we can just carry on so effortlessly. Even the action of sweeping a screen with our fingertips to get a result feels pleasurable.

But even without this, there is something about the internet and social media that captivates most of us. Looking up something on Google that we thought would take us a minute leads to us seeing more interesting things to read or listen to or watch… Before long a minute is an hour or even longer…

Or a quick look at Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter leads to someone almost seeming to be unable to tear themselves away from scrolling down for more and more. Ways of communicating such as through WhatsApp and Telegram have also vastly improved over recent years – this can also be addictive. Gaming can be included too.

It’s all been designed to be so easy and user-friendly. Some people claim it’s designed to be addictive.

For an increasing number of people around the world, internet, and social media use is just that. It’s a growing major problem.

Is internet addiction officially recognized?

While it’s not yet officially recognized as a disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), or the World Health Organization (WHO), there is stark evidence that it is a 21st-Century malady.

One expert has carried out research into social media addiction. Associate Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University’s College of Business and Economics Ofir Turel estimates that five to 10 percent of Americans could meet the criteria for being at risk for addiction to social media.

It is such a problem that in 2017 a new Twelve Steps group was formed. Known as Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous (ITAA), it states its mission: “ITAA is a 12-step fellowship of individuals who support each other in recovering from compulsive internet and technology use. Our single purpose is to abstain from compulsive internet and technology use and to help others find freedom from this addiction.”

It has many daily group meetings over the phone, online, or face-to-face in various cities in the US and around the world. All meetings are free to attend with no membership requirements other than the desire to stop compulsive internet and technology use.

ITAA’s Step One of the Twelve Steps reads: “We admitted we were powerless over the internet and technology – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Most of its meetings are in English, but there are also meetings in Spanish, Russian, German, Hebrew, French, Dutch, and Arabic.

Do I have an internet or social media addiction?

On the ITAA website, there is a list of questions for people to see if they might have internet and/or social media addiction. These are questions to honestly answer, including:

  • Do you hide or lie about your internet and technology use?
  • Is the internet and technology use the first thing you do when you wake up and/or the last thing you do before you go to bed?
  • If you go someplace new, do you feel an uncontrollable urge to document it on social media?
  • Do you always photograph certain activities for social media, such as your meals or workouts?
  • When around friends, are you constantly picking up your phone or checking your computer to post about what is happening or to check to see what is happening to other people?
  • Do you find yourself following attractive or important people on social media to make up for your lack of connection in real life?
  • Do you intend to just briefly check your Facebook or Instagram feed and then look up to discover hours have passed?

What is the definition of addiction?

Any addiction can be defined as doing something that is detrimental to the person doing it and/or those around them – and that the person cannot stop and stay stopped from doing. The word “detrimental” derives from a Latin word meaning “to wear away”.

Many addictions are precisely like this. They wear away or wear down the addict – and most often those people who are closest to them.

For many, it comes to a point where they know what they are doing is extremely damaging. But they cannot seem to stop it: it seems to hold power over them.

Any addiction is not just the “doing” of whatever it is. It includes the planning, preparation, anticipation – and also the aftermath of having to pick up the pieces, to deal with any damage or problems that the addiction has caused.

For instance, in the case of internet and social media addiction, the addict might often be dishonest. This is because people do not make it to college or work or to meet someone as arranged or even to attend important medical appointments.

But nobody wants to admit they were staring at their Instagram account for three hours… So instead, they make up something.

It’s this sort of behavior that can leave someone feeling bad. Plus the way they know deep down they are wasting their time, being self-centered, and not there for anywhere else.

So they want to change the way they are feeling. They turn to the internet or social media again as it’s the only way they presently know to change the way they feel.

Chasing after another high

This is because – as with any addiction – it acts as a major distraction for their painful feelings. There is also a high involved in just the same way a drug addict craves another high. This is because feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are released.

“We have observed that the brain’s reward system is more active and more sensitive in people who present symptoms of addiction to social media,” says California State University’s Professor Turel. “What it means is that social media provides rewarding experiences that generate dopamine in the brain, the same substance produced when we eat cake or have sex. Over time, it trains your brain to want to check social media more and more often.”

For many social media addicts, the high comes from seeing how many people like something they post. But these highs are short-lived – and so they post increasingly frequently or in a manner that they know will get more attention.

This could be, for example, a young person who posts overtly sexual photographs or clips of themselves. They start to realize that the more sexual the images, the more attention they are likely to get.

Others will post something on, for instance, Twitter or Facebook, that they know is provocative and inflammatory. Then they sit back and get a high from the reaction, even if it has been very hurtful or offensive to others.

Essentially, they are looking for external validation. This is most often due to having low self-esteem for some reason.

Addiction is a progressive illness 

As is the nature of addictions, the addict will crave and need more and more. This is because the high loses its intensity unless they do it this way.

Addiction is a progressive illness. It was first acknowledged to be an illness as far back as 1956 when the American Medical Association (AMA) stated that addiction to alcohol was an illness.

Internet and social media addiction fall under what is known as a behavioral addiction (sometimes also called process addiction). This also includes gambling, work, exercise, gaming, and sex.

As with alcohol and drug addictions, these can also lead to or play a part in physical illness. This could be due to stress that leads to a heart or stomach problem.

Or from the fact that someone is neglecting their self-care. They are not eating, washing, or sleeping adequately.

There is also an increased risk of eye and back strain as well as carpal tunnel syndrome. Due to the effects of being hooked and feeling helpless about it, there is more likelihood of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as addiction to alcohol and drugs in a bid to mask or numb how they are feeling.

In addition, there are many negative social consequences. An instance of this that is commonly seen is when someone isolates, so they can continue with their online technological addiction.

How can I reduce or stop my social media use? 

There are some methods anyone can try that can help if their internet or social media use is causing a problem. These are:

  • Arrange to meet family and friends and when you’re with them, do not look at any devices.
  • Start a new hobby that’s not to do with technology. This includes art, cooking, sports, learning a new language, playing music, and so on.
  • Don’t go everywhere with a device in your pocket or bag.
  • Turn off notifications.
  • Do not have devices in your bedroom.
  • Have a dedicated amount of time for internet or social media use each day. Be disciplined about this.
  • Delete certain apps.

Give yourself regular breaks – of a day or more from the internet and social media. Instead, do something in nature, including going for a walk or just sitting somewhere calm and peaceful. Our location here in sunny Florida was chosen with this uppermost in mind. We’re on a tranquil and beautiful 200-acre lake, and also right next to a stunning State Park that has miles of trails for hiking among wondrous scenery.

What solution is there for an addiction?

Thankfully, there is always a solution to any addiction. Many people find help through the Twelve Steps.

These have worked for millions of addicts around the world since they were introduced in the 1930s. Originally devised to help those addicted to alcohol they have been adapted to help with all addictions now, and even for mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

Here at Tikvah Lake, we can offer an introduction to the Twelve Steps. We also have other treatments that are personalized for each of our guests and that are proven to work.

All of our friendly vastly experienced professional team is carefully chosen. They have helped people with all types of mental health problems for decades now. Call us today to have a confidential chat about how we can help you or someone you know.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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