Do you have a problem with social media?


I got this message from a student a while back. I’ve reproduced it anonymously with the permission of the student.

Hi Gareth!

I hope you’re well. I’ve been keeping up with your student well-being blog over the past few months and have really enjoyed it.

I was wondering if in future you could possibly touch on any of the following topics:

  • social media addiction/overuse, and the anxiety that we seem to now live with in regards to always checking our phone
  • dealing with social media insecurities (e.g. comparing ourselves to others who seems to have it better or perfect)
  • and social media monitoring or “stalking” (e.g. sometimes we can become obsessed with ‘monitoring’ a partner or friend and who they’re following or what they’re ‘liking’)

These are some of the things I struggle with and I’m sure there’s other students out there who do too (especially being stuck at home lately).

Not sure if you’ve ever touched on these topics before, if so I’d love to read them! You’ve also spoken to my cohort once or twice now, and I’ve found some of your tips really insightful and helpful 🙂

Thanks so much.

I reproduce it here for a couple of reasons.

First, they said nice things about my work and the narcissist in me wanted to show everyone.

Second, I wanted to use this blog post (and future ones) to actually respond to the social media topics the student mentioned in the message.

It seems timely – we’ve all spent more time, just out of need (i.e. Coronavirus) on the internet. The question will be, can we titrate that appropriately as we return slowly back to a hybrid world (face-to-face and online)?

In this post I address the first topic the student raised ‘social media addiction/overuse‘.


Social media addiction

Is ‘social media addiction’ a real thing?

Maybe. I am not really sure. You’ll definitely find references to it in the literature, often rolled in with other internet and gaming disorders.

Whether or not it gains acceptance as a legitimised ‘disorder’ (i.e. appearing in diagnostic systems like the DSM), it is still perfectly legitimate to reflect on your own social media use and make a determination on whether it is healthy or not.

First up, let’s clarify what I am talking about when I say ‘social media’. I am talking about time spent on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, where we are a) scrolling through content posted by other people and comparing our lives to theirs and b) posting our own content and hoping/waiting for that content to be liked/shared/commented on. I am not referring to messaging apps (communication) or entertainment apps like Netflix.

Second, I want to clarify that I don’t personally believe that social media is either inherently awesome or inherently toxic. I think of it like chocolate. You can have a healthy relationship with chocolate (consume occasionally and savour it when you do). You can also have an unhealthy relationship with chocolate (consume frequently and mindlessly).

I have plenty of colleagues that have a really healthy relationship with social media. They use it to share what they are working on, speak up on issues of importance to them, network with people with similar interests and keep up-to-date with news in their areas of interest. So to be clear, social media can definitely be used healthily.

But if you regularly experience the following in relation to social media, then I would suggest that perhaps your relationship with it has become somewhat unhealthy:

  • You are using social media to distract yourself from things that do need your attention (e.g. your studies), maybe to the point of neglecting those activities
  • Your use of social media is leading to conflict in important relationships in your life
  • You experience significant withdrawal symptoms when you aren’t able to use social media for a while
  • Your social media use feels ‘out of control’
  • Your social media use is negatively impacting on your physical and/or mental health (e.g. eating into exercise or sleep time)
  • You find yourself obsessed with whether or not content you post is getting recognised/ liked/ shared
  • You find that the use of social media elicits strong and unmanageable emotions (e.g. rage)

So what should you do if your social media use does feel unhealthy?

First, don’t panic! Social media sites are behaviourally designed to hook people in. If you got hooked, it wasn’t because you are weak. You are just subject to the same reinforcement schedules we all are.

Second, track your use. Notice when you use social media most – times of day, situations. How does it make you feel? Do you notice feelings of anxiety or stress if you don’t have access to your phone? Do you get the impression your social media use is interfering with any other aspects of your life? Try to get an accurate picture of when and why you are using social media.

Third, start with trying a few simple modifications to see if they help. Things like turning off notifications or removing social media apps from your phone, so you can only interact with them when seated down at a computer. Or using apps like Forest to reward you for using your mobile less. Or maybe restrict your social media use to specific times of the day or only for 10-15 minutes at a time. Simple tweaks like these might be all you need to scale back your use.

If you find your use is a little resistant to simple tweaks, you might need to look into a social media detox. To be clear, a social media detox isn’t some magical evidence-based treatment. It is just an experiment with not using social media for an extended period of time. It will help give you some insights into what is driving your use and perhaps give you the confidence that you can survive (and thrive) without it in your life.

If you are still struggling, even after these hacks and extended no-use periods, you might need to do some harder work to understand what is driving the problem. That requires a little bit of self-questioning.

What psychological needs are being met by your social media use that could be better met in other ways? Perhaps you are seeking a sense of connection with others that would be better achieved through individual or small group real-world contact.

Is it that using social media is giving you a mood boost? If yes, are you lacking similar mood boosting activities in your life beyond social media?

Is it that social media is providing a distraction from things in your life that you don’t know how to cope with such as difficult relationships, challenging study or unpleasant feelings? Could it be that you need to seek out help of some kind to help you directly address those challenges. Maybe you are finding refuge in social media.

Have you become hooked on the expressions of approval from others, and if so, what does that say about your sense of self-worth? Might you need to find some other sources of self-worth? This might be hobbies or spending more time in face-to-face interactions with friends and family. Check in with your values. What is important to you in life? Are you pursuing those things? Reorienting towards those things might fill the space that social media use is filling.

If these questions are emotionally difficult to contemplate, that might be a sign they are hitting close to the bone in terms of what is happening.

It is OK in such a case to seek out some kind of counselling support to start a conversation about this. You may not necessarily be able to unpack what is driving your social media use on your own. That isn’t a sign that you’re broken. Humans tend to solve problems collaboratively, so speaking to a friend, trusted family member or health professional is a sensible way to get a better grasp of what is happening.

I think you’ll also find that if you open up to people about struggling with your social media use, you’ll find plenty of other people who also feel their relationship with social media isn’t healthy. I certainly quit a number of social media channels because my use of them started to feel icky.

The thing to remind yourself is that you can develop a workable relationship with social media and get some of the benefits without it taking over your life.

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Psychological Tools

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