Solving Social Media Addiction: A Guide to Recovery

Social media is omnipresent in our society. Between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WeChat, SnapChat, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tinder, Telegram, Reddit, YouTube, and even more, we find ourselves compelled to share what is going on in our lives and peek in on the lives of others. One of social media’s benefits is its power to connect people around the world, but when the need to check it becomes obsessive, it transforms from a means of communication into a source of addiction and other mental health issues.

If you are someone who is constantly compelled to check your various devices, breaking the habit can be a daunting process. BrandWatch notes that the average time spent on social media daily is 116 minutes. How can you liberate yourself from this obsession? Recovery from social media is indeed possible, and it requires both determination and accountability.

What causes social media addiction?

While social media is not a substance and therefore does not have the same addictive chemicals as drugs, addiction to it is still firmly rooted in psychology. According to Addiction Resource:

“Our reward area located in the mesencephalon (midbrain), and its pathways, affect our decisions and sensations. When we experience something rewarding (or use an addictive substance) neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain (the VTA) are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a ‘reward’ and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.”

For people who enjoy sharing their activities, browsing photos, and checking other individuals’ statuses, social media is a dopamine-producing activity, and therefore a “mechanism of addiction.”  

The signs of social media addiction

So how do you know if you are addicted to social media, or just really, really enjoy it? Psychology Today poses six questions to ask yourself: Do you spend a significant amount of time thinking about, or planning to use social media? Do you feel urges to use social media? Are you often unsuccessful in reducing your social media usage when you try? Do you use social media to forget about problems in your life? Are you bothered or restless when you do not have access to social media? Does your high usage of social media negatively affect your studies or career?

If you answered “yes” to all of these, then you might be addicted to social media. Only a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist can legitimately diagnose you, but your responses to these questions can point you towards seeking professional help, if necessary.

Some people, however, might be in denial about their addiction. Sarah Kessler from Fast Company tells the story of when she met up in-person with Nicole Amesbury, head of clinical development at Talkspace, an online therapy platform. Ms. Amesbury noted, “What’s interesting is that everyone who has walked by here has told me that everyone else they know has a problem, or they have a friend who has a problem.” Apparently, they believed that they managed to escape the same predicament.

The first step towards recovery is acknowledging that you have an addiction, so be honest with yourself when answering the previously mentioned questions. Denying that you have a compulsive need to check your phone will only keep you trapped in a perpetual cycle.

How to break the unhealthy habit

If you are addicted to social media, or a habitual user that could potentially become addicted, it is necessary to detox from online engagement. This process can be tricky due to social media’s consistent presence in our lives, but it is important to treat social media as if it were any other addiction. Here are a few steps you can take:

Turn off notifications: If you are constantly alert for vibrations or pings from your phone that you have a new Facebook like, retweet, Instagram comment, or something else, shut off those notifications. The buzz you are expecting is keeping you from focusing on tasks at hand and disturbing your routine.

Put some distance between you and your phone: You might find it tempting to regularly check your device simply because it is there. To avoid the need to look at it, put some distance between it and you. Don’t take your phone into the bathroom with you, close your laptop when you aren’t using it, and restrict your tablet usage for work. You may think that you can use social media in moderation, but it might be more effective to sever your relationship with it entirely, and then rebuild from there.

It is possible that one of the reasons you frequently check social media is due to the “fear of missing out,” commonly referred to as FOMO. If you are afraid of missing something exciting in someone else’s life that you barely know, the desire is detracting from your ability to live your fullest life. Removing your ability to check in can help minimize the territory that other people’s online activity takes up in your mind.

Ask friends and family for help: People can rarely break addictions alone. Ask your friends and family to help you stay off social media: hand your phone over to someone else when you are in their company (and instruct them only to give it back if you receive important communication). Whenever you sit down to eat with people, have everyone put their devices somewhere out of sight so that you are not tempted to look at your own. Request a loved one to be a “coach” to keep your progress on track. Breaking an addiction requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, but building self-discipline is much easier when you have a support system encouraging you.

Talk to a therapist: A professional mental health expert can also hold you accountable, help you set realistic goals, and guide your recovery process. They are also capable of helping you get to the bottom of your social media addiction: what do you get from it that you do not get in real life? Are you really “just scrolling,” or are you obsessed with comparing your life to other people’s, which tie into feelings of jealousy and resentment? A professional who knows the ins and outs of the human brain should be capable of helping you take tailored steps towards freeing yourself from the source of your addiction.

Delete your accounts: You might need to cut off your addiction from the source. Close your accounts, delete the apps, and refuse to redownload them again. You may still feel urges at the beginning, but their frequency will decrease when you cannot feed them.

Tips for healing

When it comes to healing, it is important to return to looking at addiction through a psychological lense. Psychology expert Julian Amriwijaya notes that it is challenging to change a pattern of behavior that induces pleasure, so your brain needs something else to substitute that pleasure. Essentially, changing from a negative repeated behavior to a positive one requires “reconditioning.”

So, overcoming a social media addiction means you need to replace it with something else. If browsing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and other platforms gives you a sense of satisfaction (and if you are aware of how much of your time it is consuming, self-loathing might be mixed in), find something that can give you a similar if not greater amount of pleasure without the adverse side effects.

If your addiction is not strong enough that you need to quit cold-turkey, you can turn social media time into a treat or reward for accomplishing tasks. You should also make an effort to spend more time with loved ones in real life, acquire a new hobby that holds your attention, travel, exercise, read books, and engage in other practices that do not detract from your time in the present. The goal is to reframe the way you think about social media, so participating in other things will help you realize just how significantly your addiction is affecting you.

If you check social media when you are bored, such as at work or home, decide to take a walk or meditate instead. Not only are they both examples of healthy activities, but they can also help improve your concentration and do not result in you feeling like your life is not as idealized as the people you follow (you cannot feel envious of what you cannot see).

Social media has its perks, but overusing it can be dangerous. For entrepreneurs that need to use social media for marketing but want to avoid becoming obsessed with it, they can consider handing over their Instagram accounts to expert managers at Social Gone Viral. If you find yourself addicted to checking and sharing on social media, it is critical to reflect on the role it plays in your life and how you can replace it with healthier and more productive activities. Recovery is possible, and you are more than capable of it.