By Anastasiia Khardikova
Social media addiction is a young societal sickness. Some of us are aware of its virality: getting detox, distancing ourselves from some of the apps or even receiving an antidote by completely deleting it. Meanwhile, others keep feeding their bodies with this contagion and spread it all over the world.
What are the roots of social media addiction and why do we become addicted to such cheap amusements?
A 2018 piece by the Guardian sums this up well:
It’s not a surprise that even experts compare gadgets with access to social media with gambling machines. Moreover, the creators of social media confirm that their goal is to keep the user online as long as possible. This means that online networks have the same purpose as casinos: to keep a person using the product”
Researchers have been studying social media addiction extensively. TV shows, magazines and programs have been hyping it. We talk about it a lot, it’s in the air. However, are we really aware of it? And if yes, who is already conscious and what do they do about it?
Hopefully, awareness can be raised of this problem with this text, because ‘forewarned is fore-armed’. I personally have this illness and still have not built immunity to it. Therefore, I decided to study and test our international students as a part of my Masters in Digital Media and Society. I made an online survey for 100 people and interviewed seven students from different countries (China, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Germany). After analyzing the results, I found some common patterns and summarized them. I also quote some of the interviews to share the commonality of the issue.
Many of us already read articles and listened to podcasts about this ‘new 2021 depression’ and faced the problem of addiction (or have friends that suffer). Mainly, students describe it as ‘a harmful action which happens without control and as an unconscious habit’.
‘…you forget to eat or sleep’.
‘It’s actually wrong for you, or like, it hurts you, but you can’t really stop it’.
Students also told me that this illness can keep them from meeting ‘real’ friends and induce more time spent on watching their friends’ content on Facebook or Instagram.
‘I spend more time on it than I do with actual living beings’.
Even though most of us recognize the components of addiction, we are still not quite sure, why does it happen to us? What kind of activity makes us addicted?
While trying to understand it, I studied the main types of online participation by Jenkins & Boyd from 2016. According to this theory, Online participation is divided into categories of Active and Passive, as illustrated in the picture below. At first sight, both categories can be equally addictive, but passive participation does not require much activity while still releasing dopamine. I.e.,passive participation is more addictive by making you feel ‘happy’ with zero effort.
People typically start to use social media (and begin a new session) because of curiosity. Social media always provides some new content every time the user updates the feed. It is like opening the fridge five times per day to find something new. However, in the fridge there is nothing new appearing, whereas on social media there is always something novel!
‘It’s always new, you know, you close Instagram, and then you open it again, and you see a lot of new posts.’
Moreover, some students compare social media with cigarettes. Convinced and invited by friends. At first they get there to be cool and be in a flow with others, while becoming increasingly addicted to this activity.
‘You first get the app because of your friends. It’s kind of like cigarettes, you know that social cigarettes are social media’.
Also, social media tells about what friends are up to with no need of texting or calling them. It is enough just to tap on their profile and see their activity.
‘Addicted to knowing what other people are up to.’
That is exactly where the popular term ‘FOMO’ originates. The Fear of Missing Out is connected to the addiction of being updated with events of other people while not being there spatially. The more you are addicted to friends’ news, the more you are feeding your FOMO.
Most of the passive participation sessions begin when the users are bored and need someone or something to entertain them. With lacking fun, interactions or any other activities they go online. It is similar to other types of addiction, when the person is understimulated or has withdrawal symptoms he turns to his addiction. Students say that it is:
‘…cheap amusement.’ or they do it ‘…to try to get some sort of serotonin’.
Furthermore, during the pandemic, the level of perceived boredom and downtime increased because activities were cut by both the government and the social situation
‘Lack of other social stimulus during the pandemic’.
Most of these addicted students underlined that if they would have any other activity to do, they would prefer offline activities, but not scrolling one’s feed.
Some young students are not used to responsibilities, coping with stress and emotional instability. They appeared trying to avoid these problems by consuming more digital content.
‘I distract myself from challenges that I face in real life sometimes. It compounds the problems.’
Procrastination is a popular phenomenon among students, but social media arguably exacerbates it. Maybe you would have procrastinated by binge-watching a whole season of a Netflix show. However, every TV-show has its end (almost), while social media has never-ending-stories and regenerative algorithms.
‘Using social media even when you have other, more important stuff to do’.
‘…I seek refuge on social media to avoid real life…’
Sometimes the respondents even avoided doing general everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning, studying, or even going to sleep — because social media provides a continuous flow of positive emotions and keeps the level of serotonin or dopamine higher, than during usual offline life.
‘Because I spend too much time on social media even though I know I have so many other things to do. I often use it as a way to procrastinate.’
One of the signs of habit is that a person does it unconsciously. The access to social media anytime and anywhere gives users the opportunity to do nothing and keep the habit. We can just press one icon on their smartphones (which can be done unconsciously) and go online.
‘I don’t really notice it…’
Easy access and availability with getting emotional feedback easily becomes a habit. Afterward, entrenched habits become routine. One student expressed it as being clueless and restless with handling boredom by giving an example of being in a bus:
‘For example, there are moments when you’re on the bus, you need to know what to do’
This brings forth one big conclusion, users risk significant dependency to social media access. We become addicted to the feeling of its perceived freedom, being up-to-date and ‘cool’in-group . It serves as an escapism , a break from responsibilities, negative/overwhelming/discomforting emotions and feelings — which means we also run from the burdens of our real, physical lives.
While the world is happening out there, social media is updating and configurating itself, but our addictions are becoming conditioned to these as well!