Twenty-three-year-old university student Sarah* is addicted to social media like most overtired office workers are addicted to coffee: It’s difficult to get through the day without it.
“At uni it is a complete distraction, especially if I’m bored in class. It drives my family crazy when I’m hanging out with them and simultaneously checking my Facebook,” she says. “And being tagged in unflattering photos has bummed me out big time in the past.”
While child psychologist and social media strategist Jocelyn Brewer doesn’t like the word addiction (“It propagates the idea that you get sucked into a vortex and can’t get back out” she says), she believes some people are more likely to fall victim to a reliance than others.
“It has parallels with substance abuse. We know some kids will drink, it’s a matter of teaching them how to do it safely,” Brewer says, adding that some people will have a compulsion to “press buttons to overcome loneliness.”
Facebook and other social mediums feed off this compulsion. Now, users are notified when someone has read their message, making them feel ignored or overlooked if they don’t receive an instantaneous reply.
“I’ve had severe moments of paranoia seeing when someone has ‘read’ my message and hasn’t replied,” Sarah admits.
A September 2013 ACMA report on young Australians and social media proves Sarah is not alone. According to the report, the number of young people who rate the internet as “very important” has doubled since 2009.
“I work with a 21-month-old who has an iPad mini filled with social networking systems disguised as games, like Moshi Monsters,” Stanghon says. “We see babies that have been on Facebook since they were born and five year-olds that often say ‘Mummy, take a photo and put it on Insty!’”
For many, social media addiction arises from a sense of FOMO, also known as Fear of Missing Out. According to Brewer, many use it as “a litmus test to see where they should be, what they should be doing” and will feed conversations to get responses for positive reinforcement.
Are you addicted?
When you start struggling to communicate with people outside of social media, you know you’ve got a problem.
Stanghon says there are often gender distinctions in what addiction looks like. In young men, who usually favour social online video games, it presents as difficulties interacting with the family, a decrease in general communication, social withdrawal, a poor diet, disrupted sleep cycles and a vitamin D deficiency due to being inside all day.
In women, apps like Snapchat and Instagram dominate, inundating them with a barrage of verbal diarrhoea where they feel the need to share what they’re doing and where they are at all hours of the day.
“If people start unfriending or unfollowing you, you know you’ve gone too far,” says social media consultant Michelle Prak, whose friends use sites like Followerwonk to receive notifications when someone unsubscribes from their updates.
Checking your accounts while out to lunch, at the movies, face to face with friends or even while you’re on the toilet are also clear signs that your usage is veering into obsession territory.
Treatment and prevention
If, by now, you’re panicking that you’re an addict without boundaries, calm down. Solving the problem isn’t as hard as you think.
“It’s not about a digital detox,” says Brewer, “It’s about digital nutrition.”
Just like maintaining a healthy diet, sometimes you will binge on social junk food (online games, chat rooms, pretty Instagram accounts) and other days you will eat healthily (debates on Twitter, catching up with your brother’s travels on Facebook and organising events or collecting information outside of work hours).
The key is educating yourself about appropriate use of social media rather than quitting cold turkey. Set guidelines for yourself as to no-go zones or times and set a good example for the young people around you.
Turn off your phone at the dinner table. Don’t keep your iPad or iPhone by your bed. Learn to separate your real life from your online life. Prioritise face to face contact always. And remember that social media is meant to be exactly that: social. Don’t let it alienate you from what matters.
* Name has been changed.