A social media addicted man standing on a boulder in nature.

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Can you be addicted to social media? What’s the difference between an addiction and a compulsion?

Start scrolling through Facebook or TikTok and if you’re not careful, an hour can pass in the blink of an eye. Social media feels addictive. But “addiction” might not be an accurate way to describe its effects on our brains and attention.

Continue reading to learn what makes social media use problematic, whether or not it’s actually addictive, and how you can take control of your attention.

Does “Addiction” Really Describe Our Relationship With Social Media?

If you’re like many people, you’ve probably had the experience of scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok for far longer than planned, or found yourself compulsively checking your favorite social media app. We often describe these platforms and their endless stream of content as “addictive.” But can you be “addicted” to social media?

What Makes Social Media Use “Problematic”?

Among researchers who study human behavior, not everyone agrees that social media use is strictly “addictive,” but many experts agree that it can be “problematic.” So putting the language aside for a moment, what kinds of behaviors might indicate that your social media use is hurting you? 

The most widely accepted assessment for determining whether someone’s social media use might be “problematic” asks people to consider questions like whether:

  • You’ve “regularly found that you can’t think of anything else but the moment that you will be able to use social media again.”
  • You’ve “tried to spend less time on social media, but failed.”
  • You’ve “often used social media to escape from negative feelings.”

The only behavioral addiction currently recognized by the DSM is “gambling addiction.” But people colloquially refer to other activities like internet use, video gaming, sex, eating, and shopping as “addictions” because we can come to feel dependent on these behaviors. “Social media addiction” isn’t an official diagnosis, but some mental health professionals argue that it should be.

What’s the Difference Between Addictive and Compulsive Behavior?

Experts say it’s not simple to distinguish between “addiction” and other forms of compulsive or impulsive behaviors. Engaging in a behavior to satisfy an addiction creates a sense of pleasure in the brain. Engaging in compulsive behavior, on the other hand, creates a sense of relief rather than a sense of pleasure. Additionally, an addiction typically involves feeling a lack of control over your behavior, feeling preoccupied with the substance or behavior you’re addicted to, and continuing to use it even though you experience negative consequences. 

Often, an addiction also involves experiencing emotional or physical withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop the behavior you’ve become addicted to. So experts say that if excessive social media is an addiction, then people would likely experience withdrawal symptoms—like increasing cravings—if they undergo a “digital detox.” However, in a study published in 2023, researchers asked people to stop using social media for a week and didn’t observe this effect.

What Makes Social Media Feel Addictive?

In 2023, 41 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against Meta, contending that Meta knowingly equipped its social media platforms with features that would cause children and adolescents to use those platforms compulsively. Experts have pointed to a range of social media features that take advantage of the way our brains respond to information and rewards to make it difficult for us to put the apps down. These include: 

  • Social connections: Social media can be beneficial when it augments real-life relationships, but harmful when it replaces them.
  • Social competition: People want to receive more likes, more comments, and more followers than their friends.
  • Unpredictable rewards: Psychologists say social media gives us “intermittent reinforcement,” or unpredictable rewards.
  • Fear of missing out: Though people joke about the fear of missing out, or “FOMO,” it’s a real phenomenon.
  • Notifications: Notifications from social media trigger a rewarding release of dopamine in the brain.

Many parents worry about the impact of social media on their children’s emotional lives and on how they spend their time. Additionally, researchers say that because the regions of the brain that enable us to resist temptation aren’t fully developed in adolescence, social media’s youngest users may find it difficult to control the impulse to check their social media feeds.

Why Some Experts Talk About “Attention” Instead of “Addiction”

Some experts choose not to use the word “addiction” in the context of social media not just because of the mixed research findings, but also because of the social ideas the term implies. University of Michigan researcher Jenny Radesky explains that “talking about ‘addictive behaviors’ or ‘addiction’ locates the problem within the individual, and their response to media, rather than in the media design itself.” She notes that this framing seems to “highlight the flaws of the user, in order to obscure the fact that major social media companies often design their products to serve their bottom line, rather than users’ best interests.” 

The commodification of people’s attention is a feature of what many experts call the “attention economy.” Experts note that regular people didn’t create the attention economy: corporations like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube did. We can’t escape it. But we can learn to be more intentional about how and where we allocate our attention.

Can You Be “Addicted” to Social Media? What Psychologists Say

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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