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Social Media and its Effect on Addictive Behavior and Mental Health

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Social media is an extremely popular and very widespread part of today’s modern society. At any given time of the day, millions of users are logged onto social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. This type of document would likely be a psychology paper or a personal essay.

Social media effects on addictive behavior and mental health

Most people these days are constantly connected to these social media platforms and it has become a deeply integrated part of our everyday lives. But this sample essay asks if all this exposure to social networking be a good thing? Studies suggest that social media may contribute significantly to substance abuse and mental health issues, giving it the potential to control and change users’ lives. 

Social media and substance abuse

The majority of teenagers these days use some form of social media. Studies show that approximately seventeen million teenagers use social media and those children are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana (Stein 2014). While we know that social media itself can be addicting, a study done at the University of Albany has found that those who use social media may be at a greater risk for substance abuse and other impulse-control problems.

The study, which surveyed over two hundred and fifty students, asked participants questions about their use of social media, internet addiction, their personal alcohol use, and their ability to regulate their emotions (Gregoire 2014). In order to assess any disordered use of social media, the participants were asked questions that reflected the same diagnostic criteria to identify alcohol dependence, such as, “How does Twitter make you feel?” and, “Do you check your account first thing in the morning?”.

The results found that about ten percent of social media users experience some kind of disordered social media use, or exhibit addictive behaviors in the way they use sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (Gregoire 2014). In addition, the study found that those who struggled with addiction to social media were more likely to report cases of internet addiction as well, along with emotional challenges, such as poor impulse control, and substance abuse problems.

It was also found that Facebook was particularly addictive for social media users, more so than other social media outlets by far; the participants spent approximately one-third of their online time scrolling through Facebook, while almost seventy percent receive Facebook push notifications (instant, real-time notifications) to their phones (Greoire 2014). One of the reasons why Facebook is a social media favorite is that it is more than simply talking to people- you can play games, gamble, watch videos and movies, trade photos, and change your profile as often as your change your mind.

Facebook makes it extremely easy for users to be constantly connected to its platform by providing easy-to-use mobile versions, in addition to offering users push notifications. Psychologist Julia Hormes, heading the study, stated,

“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently. This uncertainty… is known as ‘variable interval schedule reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction.” (Gregoire 2014).

The study concluded that those who show disordered social network use are likely exhibiting symptoms of poor emotional regulation, making them even more susceptible to problems with addiction. Hormes also said,

“Our findings suggest that disordered online social networking may arise as part of a cluster of risk factors that increase susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addictions.” (Gregoire 2014).

Ironically, the thing that feeds their addiction makes them even more susceptible to other forms of addiction. 

The findings of this study corroborate several similar studies done around the same time about the addictive potential of social media usage. For example, MRI results have shown that the brains of those who exhibit compulsive internet use go through similar changes as the brains of people who suffer drug and alcohol addictions (Whiteman 2015).

Social media and psychology

Another study, this one done by the psychology department at Harvard, sought to examine why Facebook in particular appears to be much more addictive than other social media outlets. It was found that being able to disclose certain information about ourselves is intrinsically rewarding. Doing so gives us the feeling of being seen and heard and serves almost as a kind of online diary; Facebook allows users to express themselves about anything from goings on in pop culture to having a baby to the loss of a beloved family pet.

This kind of self-expression and disclosure of information actives the Nucleus Accumbens, an area of the brain that lights up when cocaine or similar drugs are ingested into the body (Gregoire 2014). Also, the positive feedback about ourselves that we receive through comments and ‘likes’ activates our brains’ reward centers. The brain’s response to such validation feeds the addiction and ensures the continued disordered social networking use. 

The trouble with treating internet or social networking addiction is that it cannot be combated the same way that we treat other addictions. Commonly, the way to treat an addiction to gambling, drugs, sex, etc. is to practice total abstinence from the addictive behavior. The reason that internet or social networking addiction cannot be treated in this same way is being the internet is an incredibly integral and almost necessary part of today’s modern society, both professionally and leisurely.

The cross-over from regular social networking use to problematic use is not always possible for an outsider to spot and identify. The change from normal use to disordered use happens when the individual views social media as an important, or sometimes exclusive, mechanism to relieve depression, loneliness, or stress (Kuss 2011). Sometimes, but not always, those who engage in problematic social media use are poor at socializing in real life.

In these cases, the use of social media provides for the individual continuous self-efficacy and satisfaction, causing them to participate in the activity more and more often, which often leads to problems such as ignoring work, real life relationships, school, etc. This can cause distress, pushing the individual further and further into their social media addiction, seeking relief (Whiteman 2015).

Much like other addictions, those who are addicted to social media experience typical addiction symptoms, such as mood modification effected by the addiction, salience (cognitive, emotional, or behavioral preoccupation with social networking usage), changes in tolerance (the use of social media is always increasing), withdrawal symptoms, conflict as a result of the addictions, and relapse after abstinence (Griffiths 2013). Social media has also shown to negatively effect interpersonal relationships.

These studies concluded that social media addiction very deeply resembles addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc. Not only does it similarly effect the addict’s behavior, emotions, and life overall, but it also has a very similar effect on the addicts brain chemistry, proving that the addiction can be just as arresting as any other.

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Social media and mental health

In early 2014, a nineteen year old boy from the United Kingdom named Danny Bowman became obsessed with taking the perfect ‘selfie’. The boy reportedly spent ten hours per day taking over two hundred picture of himself each time for six months. When Danny realized he could never take an absolutely perfect selfie, he wanted to die.

“People would comment on them, but children can be cruel.One told me my nose was too big for my face and another picked on my skin. I started taking more and more to try to get the approval of my friends. I would be so high when someone wrote something nice but gutted when they wrote something unkind.” (Le 2014).

As a result, Danny was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder. Dr. Charles Sophy, a psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, stated that,

“No matter what genetics a teen may possess, they are impressionable and adding social media to the already prevalent peer pressure only ramps that pressure up further.” (Stein 2014).

Social media users this young are already at more of a risk for dangerous behavior, making them particularly susceptible to social networking’s negative effects. 

The University of Michigan conducted a study in which they had participants report five times a day over a two week period. The results of the study found that Facebook was negatively impacting the participants in every single variable measured (Stein 2014). Though it would seem that those individuals should just stop using social media if it makes them feel bad, as previously stated there are biological effects at play that keep users coming back.

“Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system.” (Stein 2014).

The rewards users experience are magnified when they know that their thoughts would be communicated to others. 

When we use social media, particularly Facebook, it can greatly alter the perception of what our lives should look like, and if our lives do not fall into those neat little boxes, it can alter our self-image. Often times, the things that people post are an idealized version of what is really happening in their lives. This makes others think that the lives of their friends and family are much better than their own, contributing to feelings of inadequacy, failure, and depression (Kuss 2011).

This can happen particularly if one has been having a rough time and sees others seeming to succeed and prosper. In 2012, a team of researched in the United Kingdom found that fifty one percent of social media users admitted that their use of social media changed their behavior negatively as they saw a decline in their confidence (Probst 2015). Cyberbullying can also contribute to these negative feelings and is very much still a major concern for today’s society.

An organization called Enough is Enough, which works to promote internet safety, reported that ninety five percent of teenagers who use social media have witnessed cyberbullying while thirty three percent have themselves been the victim of cyberbullying (Probst 2015). 

Another negative effect that social media can have on users’ mental health is also related to comparing ourselves with those we see on social networking sites. FOMO, or ‘fear of missing out’ is a phenomenon that occurs when we see what everyone else is doing and we feel like we might miss something or be kept out of the loop if we do not participate as well. This can cause depression and anxiety as users start to think, ‘everyone is having fun without me’.

An individual who sees pictures of their friends having fun and making memories in their absence can make the individual feel inadequate, unwanted, and left out. Surveys also show that even using Pinterest can make users feel negatively about themselves because they are not creative or crafty enough. If users are not careful, the use of social media, not matter the platform, can negatively affect their mental health and well-being. 


While the majority of teenagers and adults today are connected to some form of social media, studies suggest that too much exposure to social networking platforms can have a negative effect on our lives, contributing to substance abuse and mental health problems.

It is almost impossible in these modern times to remain permanently unconnected, so it is important to monitor and control our social media use so as not to fall into the pattern of relying on social media to sustain our relationships, boost our self-esteem, and make us feel whole. It is also critical that studies continue and research papers on this subject are made available to the public to keep everyone aware of the risks.


Gregoire, Carolyn. “Research Links Addictive Social Media Behavior With Substance Abuse.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13, Dec. 2014. Web. 19 June 2015. 

Griffiths, Mark D. “Social Networking Addictions: Emerging Themes and Issues.” Editorial. 28 Dec. 2013.: n. pag. Journal of Addiction and Research Therapy. Web. 19 June 2015. 

Kuss, Daria J., and Mark D. Griffiths. “Online Social Networking and Addiction- A Review of the Psychological Literature.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8.9 (2011): 3528–3552. PMC. 29 Aug, 2011. Web. 19 June 2015.

Le, Bryan. “Selfie Addiction Linked to Mental Health Disorders.” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up. The Fix, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 June 2015

Probst, Caitlyn. “10 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health”. Degreed. Degreed, 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 June 2015. 

Stein, Emma. “Is Social Media Dependence a Mental Health Issue?” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up. The Fix, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 June 2015. 

Whiteman, Honor. “Social media: How does it affect our mental health and well-being?” Medical News Today. 10 June 2015. Web. 19 June 2015. 



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