Here's the thing: Social media addiction is real. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, when a creator disavows their creation you know there is real cause for concern. That’s why it’s so unsettling — but also encouraging — to see tech experts who formerly worked at Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley companies raising the alarm about social media at their new organization called the Center for Humane Technology. This team of former tech insiders states unequivocally that Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and other similar social platforms and social networks are "part of a system designed to addict us." Social networks designed to addict us? Yup.
Those same insiders who helped develop that addictive technology have founded a movement to counteract social media’s negative effects on society — that' s how much people must be addicted to social media. The Center for Humane Technology is not the first such movement, nor will it likely be the last. For example, in 2016 Arianna Huffington launched Thrive Global, a media platform aimed at altering consumers’ interactions with technology to fight the growing culture of social media-induced stress that comes with internet addiction disorder.
“A couple of years ago,” Huffington says, “I noticed while having dinner with my daughters, who are the most precious people in my life, that I was unconsciously fumbling for my phone!” Disturbed by her subtle dependence on technology and social media, she realized she needed to do something about it.
Huffington’s not alone. “I’ve heard my own concerns echoed by people around the world who want very much to redefine their relationship with their phones, but need a little help doing it,” she says.
But what is social media addiction, and how can you tell if it’s a problem for you?
Social media addiction, or social networking dependency, is considered a manifestation of internet addiction disorder. Huffington characterizes social media addiction like she would any other addiction: “when you have a compulsive behavior that has negative consequences in your life, and which you’re unable to stop.”
This kind of dependence can certainly look like other addictions — one study found that brain patterns in people with compulsive social media behaviors resemble the brain patterns of drug addicts. The crucial difference is that drug addicts’ brains lose their ability to inhibit addictive behavior, while social media users do not lose that control. Experts speculate that many people simply don’t have the motivation to tamper their social media compulsions because they don’t see a need for it.
However, the Center for Humane Technology claims that addictive social media is eroding social relationships, self-esteem, mental health and even democracy. If ever there was a time to rein in our technology use, that time is now.
Huffington recommends asking the difficult questions about how you spend your time versus what your priorities are. “But there’s a built-in challenge,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to see what we’re missing because we have our heads down in our screens.”
Here are some telltale signs you might be developing an unhealthy dependency on social media:
1. You check your phone as soon as you wake up in the morning, and just before you close your eyes at night.
2. You are losing hours of sleep at night.
3. Sometimes you feel phantom vibrations, only to check your phone and find no new notifications.
4. After posting a photo on Instagram, you check in every few minutes to see how many likes you’ve gotten.
5. You compare your number of followers, likes and mentions to your friends’ stats.
6. You catch yourself following a rabbit hole of random articles and lists and don’t always know how you got there.
7. You only know how to contact even your closest friends using social media.
8. Your self-esteem suffers after you look at your friends’ profiles.
9. You feel stressed after scrolling through your news feed.
10. You have to look over your shoulder at work while you check your Facebook or Twitter page several times per hour.
11. You can’t carry on a conversation with a loved one without glancing at your phone or reading your latest notification.
12. You scroll through social media on your phone while watching TV, eating dinner or whenever you find your mind starting to wander.
What’s the next step if you realize you have an unhealthy relationship with social media?
Since your brain retains its ability to fight internet addiction, unlike other types of addictions, half the battle in overcoming social networking dependence is just recognizing its negative effects on your life. Once you identify the effects that extreme social media usage has on your mental health you will be more motivated to seek out tools and strategies to combat your social networking addiction.
“It may sound paradoxical,” Huffington says, “but technology can help.” Specifically, Huffington has developed the THRIVE app to help people take a break from their phones, and others exist to fulfill similar needs. More and more apps and devices are being created to help address the problem of social media addiction. In fact, the Center for Humane Technology has devoted whole sections of its platform to outline ethical design principles for web and software developers.
But Huffington adds that changing your relationship with social media can be difficult to do alone. She suggests recruiting loved ones to set goals together to disconnect, such as avoiding phones during dinner or other activities.
“I’ve also become very deliberate about not starting or ending my day with my phone,” she adds. “At night I escort it out of my bedroom to charge. Our phones are useful for many things, but as the repositories of our to-do lists, our anxieties and our worries, they’re definitely not sleep aids. And in the morning, instead of reaching for my phone right away, I take a few minutes to do some breathing exercises and set my intention for the day. It makes a big difference to begin and end your day with yourself and not your phone.”
Kelsey Down is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who has been featured on publications including Elite Daily, VentureBeat, and SUCCESS. She’s covered fun stuff like why TV reboots need to stop and how to hack sleep as a workout, and she also writes about personal and family wellness. Follow her on Twitter @kladown23.