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The science behind social media addictiveness and its consequences

The rise in social media use in students, particularly during the pandemic, generates concerns over mental health toll and wider ethical repercussions

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With the pandemic forcing people to stay in their own homes for extended periods of time, social media use has been at an all-time high. Between late March and early May, the Harris Poll found that between 46 percent and 51 percent of U.S. adults were using social media more since the outbreak began, with 60 percent of those who responded being ages 18 to 34. College students have often been characterized as excessive social media users, but now students’ overuse has led to questions over whether they have developed an “addiction” to social media and what the repercussions may be.

While the term, “social media addiction” is heavily used, Jennifer Penberthy, psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences doctor and professor, clarified that social media does not quite reach the diagnostic criteria for addiction in the DSM-5, the official diagnostic guide by the American Psychiatrist Association. 

However, this is primarily due to the fact that there are not enough studies on the overuse of social media to reach the diagnostic criteria, which consists of mood modification, tolerance and withdrawal. Nevertheless, the Addiction Center states that 5 to 10 percent of Americans may meet the criteria where social media use can be considered an addiction — when one’s excessive use impairs other important life areas. 

The reward system for both social media and other substances involve dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter or a chemical messenger released by neurons to stimulate neighboring neurons, that is responsible for the pleasure feeling. There are several pathways by which dopamine can be released and activated when anticipating or experiencing rewarding events. Each works to reinforce the association between a reward and its corresponding action, and each time an action results in a reward, the intensity by which the neurons respond to the reward also grows. 

Similar to addictive substances, rewarding social stimuli, such as likes on a post, activate these pathways to release dopamine. The pathways then reinforce the association between the response and the behavior that caused it. Many students may feel familiar with the dopamine-seeking behavior, as it can come in the form of mindlessly scrolling through TikTok to keep being entertained or constantly checking your phone for a notification to see who liked your Instagram post.

However, the intensity with which different people’s brains respond to this pathway can affect their mental health in different ways. As an example, Penberthy noted that social media influencers may use their apps excessively but won’t necessarily become addicted.

“Not everyone who excessively uses social media can get addicted while others can be more prone to addiction,” Penberthy said.

Currently, some studies show a correlation between excessive or addictive social media use and increases in depression. While the cause of this correlation is unknown, Penberthy mentioned that “it does seem to be mediated by low self esteem”, meaning that users with existing low self esteem who then use social media excessively, are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety. 

Second-year College student Nina Ferenc currently runs three different accounts on Instagram — her personal, her food account and her hiking account. As a result, Ferenc has been able to see the pros and cons of social media use. 

When speaking about Instagram, she said that it involves “picking the best image of what you look like,” which, she added, can all be changed by the ability to pose in a certain way or by adding a filter to hide or accentuate certain features. 

Having had her own rocky history with Instagram, Ferenc has become familiar with the unhealthy effect that social media can have on its users. Throughout high school, one of her main struggles was comparing herself to others on the app.

“What helped me stray away from this [was] finding a balance with my schoolwork and my life,” Ferenc said. 

Now, instead of solely focusing on school and using social media in her free time, she has tried to practice more life experiences, such as learning the ukulele and going hiking, and encourages others to find their own hobbies and to go on adventures to get off of social media. 

Ferenc and Penberthy both acknowledged the positive impact that social media can have when posting with a purpose. 

Due to the negative impact that social media has on its users, especially as it relates to comparing individuals, Penberthy said that users should be deliberate in their social media use. 

“[Social media users should] interact for a reason … or else they’re not actually interacting, just observing how wonderful everyone else’s life is,” said Penberthy.

Ferenc has used this method, hopping on social media only to post to her food and hiking account, so that she doesn’t succumb to an endless cycle of scrolling.

While social media’s damage to one’s mental health can vary from person to person, excessive social media use has universal ethical consequences that deal with the loss of individual control, as social media companies purposely exploit the addictive behavior of their apps.   

The Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma” provides an account of this problem, exposing how dangerous social media is. Through interviews with ex-social media executives of big companies, such as Facebook, Google and Pinterest, as well as scripted scenes of social-media obsessed teenagers whose use resembles that of many teenagers today, the movie shows the power imbalance that social media companies have over its users.  Because these companies make a profit off of advertising revenue, they purposely input persuasive psychology into algorithms to compete for users’ attention. The documentary also shows how social media users should be increasingly cautious about how they allow themselves to be affected by what they see and also wary of what information they share as these sites aggregate it to make advertising more tailored.

Philosophy Prof. Paul Humphreys currently teaches PHIL 2330, “Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence.” He pointed out that the tradeoff between users and social media companies is actually misleading, as shown in the documentary. Although seemingly reasonable, as the user gets to use the app freely while the social media companies receive their data, the user gets virtually no say over how that data is used and whether it can be sold to big advertising companies.  

“One thing that I think a lot of users don’t realize is that de-anonymizing data is relatively easy,” Humphreys said. 

De-anonymizing data is a technique used to re-identify the individual or account associated with encrypted or obscured data. This can be especially dangerous if any company releases anonymized data to the public and the act is considered invasion of privacy on both the traditional basis and a violation of the law.

As a reminder for students on social media, Humphreys advised students to be cognizant in what they allow on their laptops rather than simply accepting the terms and conditions.

“If you think you have privacy on the internet, then you’re almost certainly mistaken,” Humphreys said.