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Let’s do a thought experiment! Imagine you are God (or a higher power, just play along!) and after you created humans you want them to sustain themselves, be independent, you want them to eat, drink and reproduce on their own. Now the problem you are facing is that humans don’t do anything until they enjoy it, they need incentives for everything. So, what do you do? 

You join a wire starting from the emotional part of their brains-since you made them out to be emotional fools-and connect it to an area which is stimulated by the essential needs of life. Thus, when that circuit gets activated you make them feel happy and as a result, they seek more of what is essential to them.

This is why we humans continue to pursue and take part in pleasurable activities, because it stimulates the reward pathway, increases dopamine and forces their brain to ask for more of it. Substances like alcohol, cocaine, heroin etc. are known to hijack this circuit and artificially make the brain release much more dopamine than it would normally. 

The strength of current flow in the reward circuit is much more when artificially stimulated by drugs then what it would naturally get, no wonder addicts barely want to eat food, drink water or do other fun activities.  This article, however, is not about these drugs. It is about a very different kind of substance which acts on the brain in a very similar fashion, a substance which in today’s world is much more common than alcohol, cocaine or heroin. I am talking about social media!

ARE YOU ADDICTED?

Half of the people living on this planet are using the internet and almost all of them are using social media. The definition of social media is any form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content. Some of the most popular social media websites are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Tumblr, snap chat, Pinterest, Reddit.

In India, active social media users are 197 million. One study done among university students in Bengaluru in 2018 found that the prevalence of social media addiction among social media users was 36.9%.

How would you know if you are addicted? There is a criterion for substance addiction in the ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases), if you fulfil 3 out of the 6 points in the last 1 year, then you are said to be dependent on the substance. This criterion can loosely be used for social media dependence as well, it is as follows: 


WHY ARE YOU ADDICTED?

There is no one cause; there are only factors which make you more likely to get addicted. If you have one or two of these risk factors that do not necessarily mean that you will get addicted, it is only if you have the right combination of these risk factors that you tend to suffer from this disorder. The different factors can best be described in three sections:

  •  Biological factors (what we are born with), 
  • Psychological factors (are thought processes), 
  • Social factors (our environment).

THE BIOLOGICAL FACTORS: Certain personality types are more prone to getting addicted than others. Research shows that even though extroverts use a lot of internet, they are also comfortable with face to face communication. It is the introverts who tend to avoid people interaction and are thus, are more likely to get addicted. Research also shows that if you have narcissistic traits, then you have a higher chance of using the medium for attention and praise and subsequently get addicted to it.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS: The thought process most common among social media addicts can best be described by the famous acronym FOMO (Fear of missing out). When you fear that you will miss out on something which your peers are a part of, you keep checking social media and are more likely to get addicted to it. If you have low self-esteem, then any like or comment you get makes you feel good about yourself and improves your self-efficacy temporarily and reinforces your posting on social media.

THE SOCIAL FACTORS: You use social media at your house, at your workplace, on public transport. You make get together plans always on social media, you congratulate your friends only on social media, you get our news/or your gossip (whichever you prefer) on social media. It does not take a genius to understand that all of this will contribute to addiction.   

 

WHAT CAN YOUR ADDICTION LEAD TO?

Studies have found that social media users tend to have less happiness and satisfaction in life. They become more prone to developing other addictions like porn addiction, gambling addiction or even drug addictions. You also have a much higher chance of developing anxiety, depression and other comorbid mental illnesses than the normal population. When checking social media is the first and the last thing you do before bed, your sleep cycle gets disturbed and this leads to chronic insomnia.

Other health issues such as blurry vision and headache due to strained eyes, as the result of long hours watching the screen, can occur. If you are using social media from a cell phone, you may suffer back and neck pain issue as you have to consistently bend down your neck to look at your phone. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a medical condition due to compression of the median nerve as it travels through the wrist at the carpal tunnel. This is due to long hours of repeating the same movement with your hands and arms, especially when you use your phone or face the computer over a long period.

The more you engage with social media, the less you are able to focus on your work, it leads to stress and fatigue which leads to decrease productivity and increase in procrastination. One survey done among couples in Britain found that as high as 25% of the married couples had at least one argument with their partners on a weekly basis and the issue was related to social media usage.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO MANAGE THIS ADDICTION?

It is impossible to attempt to change the addictive behaviour without first finding out the extent of it. Make a diary and for an entire week note down the exact times of the day you use social media, and for how long. Monitor which websites/apps you use the most, which websites/apps you use the least, what kind of material do you post the most, when do you increase your social media use, what makes you decreases your social media use etc.. Only after this is successfully done can we move on to treatment.

In something as complex as an addiction, which does not have one causal factor, we need to work on multiple factors– either one at a time or simultaneously.

MANAGING SOCIAL FACTORS: Rules! Come up with specific time intervals (like 8 to 10 in the morning) and specific situations (like dinner table) where you force yourself to log out of social media. Start with a short time interval, the task should be easy to accomplish. 

Increase the time per day spent without social media every 2-3 weeks. Gradually it is possible to reach a stage where instead of setting time intervals for not using social media, you use social media only in a specific time period. This behavioural change is difficult and is best done with a companion to whom you are accountable to.

MANAGING PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS: Start questioning yourself and write down the answer to the questions. Ask yourself questions like, why are you on this Website/App? Is it necessary do be on it right now? can it wait? Why do you want people to respond to the post? What do you feel will happen if people don’t respond? Is the response absolutely necessary? Does this behaviour make things better for you or cause more harm in the long run? Are there other ways or things you can do for social interaction and approval? 

 Learn the skills required for face to face social interactions and practice them. Find small rewards for your self which you give yourself on a day-to-day basis if you stay away from social media and make efforts towards face to face social interaction, by not depending on others for rewards this technique improves self-efficacy.

MANAGING BIOLOGICAL FACTORS: There is not much you can do to change our basic personality trait however awareness of your personality type can help you regulate it better. If you are suffering from comorbid conditions like depression, generalized anxiety disorder then professional help would help a great deal. Some times substituting a harmful addictive behaviour with a more positive behaviour helps, like substituting the time which you previously spent on social media with time at the gym or time playing sports or pursuing your hobbies.

Writing this article in the second person and the usage of “YOU” and “YOUR” on multiple occasions is a conscious choice, the intention is not to target anyone but to make it more personal, the truth is all of us suffer from social media addiction. This disorder is a pandemic in the through sense of the word. I can only hope that one day all of us will learn how to use social media with restraint and responsibly. 

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About the author

Dr Adnan Kadiani has been fascinated with the workings of the human mind since a very young age. This led him to take up psychiatry as a speciality after completing his MBBS and he is currently practising therapy oriented psychiatry in South Mumbai. He has a deeply felt interest in teaching and research. Childhood adversities and domestic violence are his primary research interest topics. When not working as a mental health specialist you would find him travelling, understanding different cultures, talking to different people and enjoying the various cuisines of the world.

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