Social media is psychologically addictive

Can our brains handle this level of constant stimulation?

someone staring at their phone with a zombie-like expression on their illuminated face
ILLUSTRATION: Jill Baccay / The Peak

By: Hannah Kazemi, Staff Writer

The realities of social media addiction have been highly debated alongside increasing internet use. Not enough people truly understand the impact of spending hours staring at their tiny rectangles all day, and the effects on our mental health and psychological development are still being discovered. Social media addiction can be as harmful as other forms of addiction, and should be taken seriously.

I was 13-years-old when I got my first iPod with a touch screen. I started using Instagram and Snapchat, and as the years passed, the number of social media accounts I acquired increased. I love many things about social media — particularly its ability to connect me to friends and family who live far away. I find the act of sharing photos and snapshots of my life to be quite meaningful. Unfortunately, it also became something I obsessed over. I would often compare the number of followers I had to my friends and check the number of likes I got on every post. It became unhealthy really quickly.

TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms right now, with over one billion monthly active users. There’s been a lot of research into the way that TikTok affects our attention spans by allowing us to consume so much content in such short periods of time. The TikTok algorithm has been studied relative to a concept called intermittent reinforcement; this psychological term describes the way rewards are used to capture users’ attention in randomized intervals. Sometimes when you post a video, it’ll go viral or gain a considerable amount of positive attention. Your first video that goes viral might give you a high number of likes and followers, which triggers a release of dopamine — the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure in your brain’s “reward system.” Other videos you post might not go viral, but the more you post the higher your chances are. Thus, our willingness to continuously engage with TikTok is maintained due to our desire to feel that hit of dopamine again. The constant positive reinforcement validates us and makes us feel good about ourselves.

The same principle can be applied to other addictions like gambling, due to the way that dopamine is released when we receive these rewards. We may not win all of the time, but when we do get a positive result it’s enough to keep us going until we get our reward again. Though researchers have made it clear that dopamine is not what we are addicted to when we develop addictions, it’s a highly influential motivator that encourages us to continue seeking out positive rewards. We become neurologically addicted and develop a psychological response that makes us use social media constantly.

Unlike gambling, social media addiction isn’t classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, since Internet Gaming Disorder (ICD) was recently added in 2013, more people have pushed for the inclusion of social media addiction as a mental health condition. ICD refers to “impaired control over gaming” that significantly impairs one’s daily life. According to Forbes, social media addiction can also have a significant impact on people’s personal lives, and even lead to withdrawal symptoms like anxiety.

Take a look at your screen time and set a goal to bring it down a little bit each day. Maybe that means reading a book instead of scrolling TikTok before bed, participating in phone-free activities, or setting time limits through your phone’s settings to decrease the time you’re using social media. Small steps like this add up and make a big difference on the way we engage with social media and the off-screen world.