Social media has changed a lot about our lives. It’s changed how we view one another and how we view ourselves, not to mention how we communicate and develop relationships.
While there have been many positives to this shift, there have also been a lot of negatives too. Social media usage has been linked with mental health problems in adolescents as well as significant numbers of users reporting that they are addicted to social media.
But how has social media created such an irresistible lure, and why does it make us feel so crap most of the time?
These platforms have made it all too easy to present our most ideal and perfect lives in order to avoid facing up to the pain we’re feeling in our real lives. But for this article, I’m going to do the exact opposite.
I’m going to make space for the pain. Together, we’re going to tolerate that pain, and face up to it once and for all.
The problem of instant gratification
The short answer to the question of what causes social media addiction, and the associated anxiety, is that it creates instant gratification.
Let me explain.
Instant gratification is the feeling you get when the thing you’re doing gives you an instant hit of feel-good hormones like dopamine. It’s different from the reward you get from achieving a long-term goal or working at something for a reward. It happens instantly, hence the name.
Sounds great, right?
On the surface, instant gratification seems like a good thing. But when you dig deeper, you’ll realise that it’s actually really damaging.
First up is the fact that instant gratification is addictive. Once we get used to it, we want more and more and the need becomes insatiable.
Why is that bad? Because it changes the chemical composition of your brain meaning that you have to keep feeding it. You spend a lot of energy trying to trigger those chemicals that make you feel good.
Once you’re hooked on that feeling, whether it’s using social media, slot machines, or any other activity or hobby, you experience discomfort and anxiety when you do actually have to wait for it.
In other words, you experience pain.
Your brain does not like experiencing pain.
In response, it goes into overdrive in order to recreate the feeling you crave so that it can stop the pain. This insatiable need can lead to unhealthy or toxic choices - whatever it takes, so long as you can get gratified.
Why social media is so addictive
So that’s what instant gratification is, but how does social media do that to you?
Well, social media is a platform where people can present what they want and who they want to the world.
As a user, diving into someone else’s life makes us think that we can be part of that magical kingdom, which makes it a great distraction from real life - thinking about someone else means that you don’t have to think about yourself.
How is that gratifying for us? It helps us escape from our discomfort. From our own pain.
Thing is, our brains can’t tell the difference between something imagined and something real, which means we begin to compare our own, real lives with the fantasy lives of the people we see on social media.
So, you are comparing yourself to something that sometimes does not even exist! Your self-worth is measured against a fantasy.
Read that again: your self-worth is measured against a fantasy.
And each time you stop looking at that fantasy, you’re once again confronted by your real-world problems, like bills, work, and the like.
For example, when you are having an uncomfortable conversation with your partner, do you find yourself reaching for your phone to signal the end of the conversation because it’s uncomfortable? (I know I’ve done it!)
We keep logging back in to escape the pain of the real world, and so the cycle continues.
Understanding your social media addiction
Can we change or stop our insatiable need for gratification and always trying to feel good?
Turning off notifications can help but if you are still going back into them what does it mean? Addiction? Need to disconnect from the pain around us?
Another complication is that your own lived experiences act as a lens which impacts the way you perceive someone else’s social media presence. How you feel on any given day will affect what you think of others. So, if you are feeling low and undeserving, you will perceive everyone else’s life as better than yours.
Isn’t it ironic that in a world where we feel so connected and we know what happens on the other side of the world in a matter of minutes, we feel so alone and uncomfortable.
Despite its faults, the online world can be a beautiful and enabling thing. The onset of online counselling has enabled a lot of people to seek help when they would have found it harder in person.
And the beauty of counselling is that we can talk about that and explore during sessions what it means to meet in real life or online.
We might explore whether you find having lovely conversations with people on text and on WhatsApp easy but struggle to have a conversation with the same person in real life.
How does it feel? Which one triggers more discomfort and which one is more comfortable.
By facing up to the discomfort caused by social media, we can loosen its grip on us, and start to relearn how to build meaningful relationships in the real world.
How to stop your social media addiction
Ultimately, we have to make our own mindful decisions about how we choose to interact on social media. By setting boundaries, and recognising when our need for instant gratification is making our decisions for us, we can turn things around.
Start by being more mindful of the amount of time you spend on social media each day. You could do this by setting a timer each time you log in so that you know when your allotted time has passed and can log out. Alternatively, there are apps that will tell you how much time you’ve spent using your phone each day, and can even limit the times of day when you can access certain apps.
At the same time as reducing our reliance on social media, we must relearn how to have respectful, face-to-face conversations without the protection of the screen.
Make time to have conversations with friends and family away from social media. Instead of sending a message through Facebook or WhatsApp, why not try calling that friend you haven’t seen for a while?
If you find it difficult to speak on the phone, arranging to meet a friend or relative for a walk can be a less daunting prospect than sitting face to face and talking. By getting out in the fresh air and walking side by side, you might find it easier to open up.
Seeking help for a social media addiction could be another positive step towards understanding what’s causing the problem and how you can take steps to resolve it. The talking therapy I specialise in is called psychodynamic therapy. I’ve written an article about what psychodynamic therapy is, including information about what it entails, and how it could help you to feel better.