It’s a source of much debate amongst psychologists and addiction experts: Can a person be addicted to social media? Or to technology in general? As with other types of “behavioral” addiction, such as shopping or gambling, some researchers believe that such activities don’t create the necessary biochemical changes to constitute addiction. Those who’ve witnessed the impact of social media and internet use first-hand, though, say it’s clear that their loved ones are experiencing the effects of addiction.
Just ask Ellen, the mother of a teen whose compulsive internet use transformed her from a good student engaged in extra-curricular activities to a depressed, agitated young woman who couldn’t focus on anything else. Like many with addictive behaviors, Ellen’s daughter may have had a preexisting tendency toward depression, but excessive internet use made the issue worse and became a compulsive, uncontrollable behavior of its own.
Addiction or Avoidance?
Since so many of those struggling with supposed technology addiction are very young, many people have raised the question of whether this is really an addiction issue or just poor self-control, a way for young people to avoid their responsibilities. It’s a good question. Teens do have poor impulse control because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed yet, which is why researchers recommend in-home limits and parental guidance around technology use.
Unfortunately for parents and teens, parental control is rarely enough to guide young people online, and constant technology use can easily rewire developing brains. The reward mechanism may not be the same as that found in universally recognized addictions, but at the very least compulsive technology use should be considered a kind of habit. It becomes ingrained for the young people who participate in it.
Whether or not excessive technology use is really an addiction, researchers and parents alike should recognize that the resultant harms are very similar to those from traditional substance abuse disorders. For example, just as drug or alcohol use can ruin relationships, many young people sabotage their first attempts at dating through compulsive social media use. They may overshare about the relationship, overemphasize online displays, or act in passive-aggressive ways such as posting vague status messages or allusions to the relationship. Over time, these habits become their norm, putting future relationships at risk, even into adulthood.
Other young people take a more aggressive turn through their technology use. They may obsess over a girlfriend or boyfriend’s digital connections, track their check-ins, and even stalk them via social media features. While adults can look in on someone casually, using technology as a tool alongside real life, teens are more likely to use it as a replacement for real life. And since they lack the skills to identify their own harmful habits, those behaviors only escalate.
Reshaping Young Minds
Whether or not they are addicts in the technical sense, young people who overuse technology and social media benefit from types of treatment similar to those used in managing addiction – specifically, rehab. Rather than detoxing, though, young people work on building new habits and addressing emotional issues that caused them to retreat into social media.
Tech rehab programs generally offer therapy and outdoor activities and encourage young people to develop hobbies. They can also help them identify their emotional triggers so that they can address those issues directly, rather than avoiding them through technology use.
In the end, it may not be very important whether technology or social media over use are legitimate addictions or just bad habits – what matters is that we find ways to address the problem before it becomes more serious. That begins at home, by educating teens about technology use before they’re left to their own devices, including by limiting screen time for very young children. And when it gets serious, psychological support can be called for. Just because a computer or smartphone isn’t drugs or alcohol doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take seriously the problems it can cause.