“My child is addicted to social media!” rolls off your tongue in an almost casual, not-that-shocking kind of way. But there’s a part of you that’s concerned it might be true. It seems like most parents could say the same about their teens which certainly takes some of the sting away, but your question remains: Does my child have a social media addiction? 

In this post, I’ll break down exactly what you need to know about social media addiction in a clear and concise way (fact: you don’t need to read article after article to understand this issue).

Let’s jump in.

Can My Child Be Diagnosed With A Social Media Addiction?

Technically, no. Not yet, at least. In the USA and Canada, doctors and mental health professionals (like psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors) use a medical system to describe and categorize mental illnesses in a consistent way (called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual).

At this time (November 2017) “Social Media Addiction” is not a mental illness and not technically considered an “addiction”.

However, this manual is reviewed and changed constantly to keep up with the current mental health landscape. It’s important to know that several tech-related issues are being discussed and it is almost guaranteed that some will show up as diagnoses. For example, currently there is something called “Internet Gaming Disorder” that is an official diagnosis, but realistically, people are addicted to much more than just internet games right?

It takes time for systems to catch up with real life, especially when it changes as fast as the digital world does. So, at this point, there is no official social media addiction diagnosis, but you can expect that it will come soon.

So why do people use the term “social media addiction” then?

People can develop addictions to all sorts of things. For example, a well-known doctor and writer, Dr. Gabor Mate, talks about his addiction to classical music. No, “Classical Music Addiction” is not an actual illness, but his behaviour around acquiring and consuming classical music, and the way it negatively impacted his life, looked just like what most people think of when they hear “addiction.”

When certain behaviours resemble addictions, it is helpful to think of them as true “addictions” in order to convey the severity of them and to understand how they operate. It is entirely possible that someone uses social media to the extent that it impacts them in a similar way to substance addictions. They might feel incredibly pulled to engage, feel withdrawal symptoms if they cannot use it, and they would notice significant negative effects in other areas of their lives such as relationships, school, health, work, and extracurricular activities (these are outlined for you below).

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Why Is Social Media Addictive?

Most social media platforms have very sophisticated reward systems set up to keep you coming back for another social fix,  and encourage you to put more and more time into engaging with others.

Think about the current “Story” trend that started on SnapChat and now is a huge part of Instagram and Facebook (find a complete rundown of the different platforms here).  For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a feature where you upload a picture or video and it is only available to view for 24 hours. Ever heard of FOMO? “Fear Of Missing Out”. It’s real, and this ‘Story’ feature taps into you child’s FOMO. They don’t want to miss a thing, and therefore, they make sure they check their accounts often.

And then there’s the every-so-satisfying ‘likes”, shares, and comments that makes social media even more addictive. People’s self-esteem is often bolstered when they are on the receiving end of this kind of engagement. It feels good when people leave comments, love your content, and share it with others. And when new followers come on board, well that just makes you feel even better.

Some studies show that this “hit” has similar physical affects as other substance addictions because they are directly linked to the feel-good pleasure centres in the brain. So think of what happens in the brain (and therefore with mood and behaviour) when you don’t get the shot of dopamine? You suffer and feel down. The same can apply for social media.

[bctt tweet=”Social media can negatively impact a person’s mental health.” username=”kateborsato”]

Think about this: the way that social media tracks social statistics (likes, comments, engagement rates, followers, etc), people now have a concrete way of measuring their “worth” or how “popular” they are. Now, let me be very clear:  I do NOT think these stats actually measure a person’s worth or anything of true meaning, but that’s how the numbers are interpreted by many young people. So, naturally, teens tend to care a lot about how they measure up on social media, which draws them in more and more.

While there are addictive elements of social media, it’s important to understand that social media does not cause addiction. In other words, many people use social media in a very healthy way and never develop a problem.

A helpful analogy is looking at alcohol consumption. Many people drink alcohol in a very moderate and healthy way that enhances their lives. And, many people consume alcohol in an excessive way that brings about significant negative outcomes. So, my belief is that alcohol is not inherently bad for everyone, but rather, some people find it difficult to use it in a healthy way.

See how this relates? Social media is not bad for everyone, but can certainly cause significant problems for some.

So how do you know when it becomes a problem then?

Social Media Addiction Warning Signs

Just because your teen loves social media and uses it often, doesn’t mean that there is anything to be concerned about. In fact, social media is a very normal part of growing up in this generation, with 83% of 14-18 year olds using it. Of course young people want to interact with each other, and social media actually creates a really fun and easy way to do so (learn more about why your child loves social media, as well as what the most popular platforms are all about).

But like anything else, it’s all about moderation and balance. Problems arise when social media becomes the primary focus of your child’s life and other important areas begin to slide.  Here are some things to pay attention to:

1. Reduced School Performance

No, your child doesn’t have to be a top performing student, but take note if things are suddenly taking a negative turn. Is social media getting in the way of their homework or their ability to focus at school? Are they disinterested in learning because they’d rather be online? And how do they feel about going to school and interacting with people in person? These questions will give you a sense of how social media impacts school and inform you whether it is out of balance.

2. Relationship Conflict or Disinterest

When behaviours begin to have addictive qualities, its common for relationships to suffer. Take a moment to think about how your child is interacting with others in person. What do you notice about your relationship with them, and their relationships with other family members? Sometimes teens let go of in-person friendships and prioritize the online world: this isn’t always a bad thing, but pay attention to how it impacts your child.

3. Lost Interest in Activities & Hobbies

Social media might become a problem for your child if they have lost interest in any activity that doesn’t involve social platforms. For example, some teens quit their sports teams or aren’t interested in hobbies that once brought them a lot of joy. Social media might become more interesting than anything else your child does (and more rewarding too) so they start to let things go. Take note if this starts to happen.

4. Health

How is your child’s health overall? Because social media engagement could literally go on forever, there is no natural end point so teens can stay up all night engaging. Late night phone activity has many different health outcomes that you need to pay attention to (like fatigue, insomnia, poor appetite). Not to mention the body-strain that happens when you are scrolling a smart-phone for hours on end.

Mental health is another big area to pay attention to. Social media is not great for self-esteem. (This article has lots of interesting information). Think about it. When you are linked to a global network, you are also compared to a global network.  Plus, people usually present the best, most-edited versions of themselves possible. So not surprisingly, most people’s self-esteem plummets after a social media session so keep this in mind.

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The Clear Answer For Parents

There is a lot of discussion and debate about whether or not social media is addictive and this can be confusing for parents.  Here’s what I want you to know and take away from this post:

  • Social media can be used in a very healthy and fun way, and not everyone develops a problem.
  • If social media is used excessively (just like alcohol or video games) it can cause significant negative effects on your child’s life.
  • Many health professionals won’t acknowledge “social media addiction” as an official mental health condition although they likely will sometime in the future. They might, however, see the problem as a greater “behavioural addiction.”
  • Whether or not the behaviour is called an “addiction”, as the parent you are in the best position to know whether there is a problem. If so, seek further assistance to help your child restore balance around social media.

I am a firm believer in moderation, and do not recommend banning social media altogether. Instead, I recommend that you find ways to manage how much your child engages with these platforms (and with technology in general) so that they don’t lose balance. And, frequent discussions about social media and technology etiquette (that is, how to engage in a respectful and good-natured way) are needed.

Talk to your child about your concerns. See if you can work together to establish some guidelines so that your child gets all the good from social media, but avoids the bad.

And as always, seek more professional help if you need to! Social media isn’t going anywhere, so it’s best to get a handle on how it impacts your family as soon as you can.