Substance Use

Social Media Addiction and Substance Abuse

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The phenomenon of social media addiction, characterized by an excessive and compulsive use of social media platforms, has shown a concerning correlation with substance abuse. This emerging form of behavioral addiction shares several psychological pathways with traditional substance dependencies, including the constant pursuit of reward, alterations in mood regulation, and heightened risk-taking behaviors. (1)

Individuals who excessively engage in social media usage may experience similar dopamine-driven feedback loops as those encountered with substance use, both providing temporary relief or escapism from underlying issues such as stress, anxiety, or depression.

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What Makes Social Media So Compelling?

Social media’s compelling nature is rooted in its design, psychology, and interaction with human behavior. At the heart of social media platforms lies a complex interplay of factors that captivate users, making these digital spaces hard to resist.

  1. Instant Gratification: Social media delivers immediate rewards through likes, comments, and shares. This instant feedback loop stimulates dopamine production—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure—similarly to how one might experience joy from winning a game or receiving a compliment. (2)
  2. Infinite Scroll and Variable Rewards: The endless stream of content available through features like infinite scroll exploits our natural tendency for curiosity and novelty-seeking. Coupled with variable reward structures (not knowing what you’ll discover next), users are engaged longer as they continuously seek out new stimuli.
  1. Sense of Community Belonging: Platforms are designed to foster connections among friends, family, and even strangers with shared interests. This creates virtual communities where individuals feel understood and supported. Moreover, feeling part of a larger group satisfies the basic human need for belonging and acceptance. (3)
  2. Personalized Algorithms: Through sophisticated algorithms, platforms learn user preferences and tailor content accordingly, ensuring that the feed is always filled with topics likely to interest the user. As a result, each visit feels uniquely tailored to the individual, enhancing overall engagement and satisfaction.
  3. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Many people use social media to keep up with events happening in others’ lives, while others are concerned about being left behind and not staying current with trends and news. This amplifies the compulsion to check for updates regularly to avoid missing anything important.
  4. Escapism and Relaxation: For some, social media provides a welcome distraction from daily stresses and responsibilities, allowing them to unwind and relax in an alternate reality of sorts. Whether scrolling through funny videos, engaging in discussions, or pursuing hobbies and passions, it temporarily escapes real-world pressures. (4)

Understanding the mechanisms at play is critical in explaining why millions spend vast amounts of time online. Despite their benefits, it’s important to be aware of the potential drawbacks of excessive usage, such as its impact on mental health and productivity.

Recognizing triggers and managing consumption can help maintain a healthy balance between the online and offline worlds.

Social Media Addiction

While doctors can’t necessarily diagnose you with “social media addiction,” it can still interfere with your mental health and physical health. Here’s a social media addiction statistic that may surprise you: Some experts suggest that a full 10 percent of Americans meet the criteria for addiction to social media. (5)

Of course, when used in moderation, social media can be a wonderful way to interact with family and friends. It can also be a relaxing and mindless activity.

But especially with the availability of smartphones, it’s very easy to lose track of time and devote too much of your energy to scrolling through social media throughout the day. Sometimes, it can be truly debilitating.

How To Identify Social Media Addiction

If you’re concerned that your social media use has gotten out of control, you’re not alone.

Below are just a few indications that social media has become a problem for you: (6)

  • Ignoring real-life, face-to-face people in favor of social media
  • Struggling at work or school because of social media use
  • Experiencing frustration when social media is unavailable
  • Thinking about social media while not using it 
  • Using social media to vent frustrations or deal with problems

It can be difficult to identify the line between being enthusiastic about social media and being addicted to it. 

How Social Media Affects The Brain

The mechanisms through which these effects occur are increasingly becoming subjects of interest in neuroscience and psychology research. (1)

  1. Dopamine Release: Similar to how certain substances trigger pleasure centers in the brain, social media stimulates dopamine production—a neurotransmitter associated with enjoyment and satisfaction. This release occurs during positive interactions such as receiving likes or comments, essentially rewarding users for their participation and encouraging continued use. (7)
  1. Attention and Concentration: Constant notifications and updates demand immediate attention, fragment focus, and reduce the ability to concentrate for prolonged periods. The result is a shortened attention span and difficulty sustaining thought or completing complex tasks without succumbing to distractions inherent in platform design.
  2. Emotional Contagion: Exposure to a wide range of emotions expressed online can lead to a phenomenon known as emotional contagion, where individuals begin to absorb and mimic the feelings they are exposed to. Whether it’s joy, sadness, or anger, the pervasive nature of shared content affects the user’s own mood state, even if they are not directly involved in the interaction. (8)
  3. Neuroplasticity Changes: Over time, repeated exposure to specific activity patterns—like those experienced while navigating feeds—can alter the structure and function of particular brain regions. For instance, reward processing and decision-making areas may become more sensitized to activities providing gratification, while others lacking immediate reinforcement may become less so. (9)
  4. Social Comparison and Self-Perception: Platforms facilitate endless opportunities for comparison between oneself and peers. Curated portrayals of success, happiness, beauty, wealth, etc., often set unrealistic standards. These posts contribute to distorted self-perception and lowered self-esteem, in some cases leading to anxiety and depression. (10)
  5. Memory Formation and Learning: While social media provides access to vast amounts of information, constant multitasking and rapid switching between different types of content hamper deep learning and memory formation. Instead, surface-level processing prevails, making it harder to retain detailed knowledge in the long term. (11)

How Much Social Media is Too Much?

Determining how much social media is too much hinges on the nuanced interplay between individual behavior patterns, psychological well-being, and daily functioning. While there’s no one-size-fits-all metric for excessive use, certain indicators can signal when engagement crosses into potentially harmful territory.

  1. Time Spent: A primary measure of excessive use is the sheer amount of time devoted to social media platforms. Spending several hours daily or consistently choosing social media interaction over real-life activities might indicate problematic usage. Research suggests that spending more than two hours per day on these platforms may increase feelings of loneliness and depression.
  1. Impact on Daily Life: When social media begins to interfere with important life responsibilities—such as work, school, or personal relationships—it’s a clear sign that it’s being used excessively. The distraction caused by constantly checking updates during times when the focus should be on other tasks is another indicator.
  2. Mood Dependency: Relying heavily on social media to validate self-worth and regulate mood can be problematic. If an individual feels significant distress or disappointment from not receiving expected reactions to their posts or if they experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability or restlessness when disconnecting, this dependency is concerning. (12)
  3. Emotional Well-Being: Noticeable declines in mental health can be attributed directly to social media usage and correlate closely with the levels observed. Especially in cases where the comparison with others leads to decreased self-esteem and increased anxiety, vigilance regarding signs of emotional deterioration is essential.
  4. Disruption of Sleep Quality: Excessive nighttime social media use can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and insomnia due to reduced melatonin production from exposure to blue light emitted by devices. Additionally, lying in bed scrolling rather than winding down can make falling and staying asleep harder, impacting overall sleep quality. (13)
  5. Social Isolation: Preferring virtual interactions at the expense of face-to-face connections can result in the gradual erosion of meaningful bonds in favor of superficial online exchanges, harming the user’s sense of belonging to a community. Ultimately, recognizing the difference and engaging in moderation versus compulsively, especially for adolescents or young people, lies in understanding the impacts of the abovementioned aspects. (14)

Social Media Addiction And Substance Abuse

Social media addiction and substance abuse represent a complex interplay of behavioral patterns that can significantly impact mental health and overall well-being. While engaging in social media activities is often seen as a harmless, enjoyable pastime, it can escalate into compulsive behavior and problematic social media use for some. This is especially true in young adults.

The Nature of Social Media Addiction

At its core, social media addiction is categorized as a behavioral addiction where the action of using these platforms—scrolling through feeds, posting content, and interacting with others’ posts—becomes an uncontrollable urge despite negative consequences.

This type of addiction thrives on the immediate gratification provided by likes, comments, and shares, which stimulate dopamine release in the brain’s reward system. Over time, users may develop a tolerance for social networking sites, needing more time to achieve the same level of satisfaction as they once did. This leads to addictive behaviors.

Interconnection with Substance Abuse

When coupled with substance abuse issues, this dual diagnosis becomes particularly problematic. Substances like alcohol and drugs offer similar quick-fix solutions for emotional discomfort, boredom, and stress as much as moments of engagement.

However, both forms amplify each other, creating a cycle of reliance and avoidance in dealing with underlying problems. For instance, a loved one struggling with feelings of loneliness might drink to cope, then turn to seeking connection and affirmation, further isolating themselves from real-world interactions.

Compounding Effects

The compounded effects of having co-occurring disorders mean that the challenges faced are exponentially greater than dealing with just one disorder alone. Managing emotions and making healthy decisions can be severely impaired, leading to problems in personal relationships and performance at work or school.

Physical health is also at risk since excessive screen time combined with potentially harmful behaviors associated with the consumption of substances create a perfect storm for physical and psychological ailments. Addictive use for specific age groups will have more negative effects, leading to substance use disorders. (15)

Treatment Considerations

Addressing this combination requires a comprehensive approach. Sometimes, a digital detox won’t help the risk factors of a social media addiction. Effective treatment plans should incorporate cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) elements to identify and alter maladaptive thought processes alongside strategies for building resilience and coping skills. (16)

Group and individual counseling provide invaluable support networks for sharing experiences, exchanging social interactions, and learning from others. When co-occurring mental health disorders are present, medication-assisted treatments (MAT) can be used in conjunction with psychotherapy. 

Holistic interventions from the public health sector, focusing on diet, exercise, and mindfulness practices, can also be beneficial in restoring balance to the affected person’s life. (17)

Problems Of Overusing Social Media

There’s nothing wrong with scrolling through TikTok or checking your Instagram daily. It can be a great way to connect with others.

But like anything, internet use and social media sites can be used to the point that they cause legitimate emotional problems, such as: (18)

  • Isolation and sense of loneliness
  • Low self-esteem or issues with body image
  • Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) 
  • Neglecting real-life people and relationships
  • Mental health issues
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Social anxiety
  • Ignoring responsibilities in favor of social media 

Consider how the overuse of social media and internet addiction impacts your emotions. How does it really make you feel? Are you envious of the lives you see projected on social media and feel like yours doesn’t measure up?

Do you worry that failing to post or maintain your social media presence will negatively affect you? It’s important to consider whether or not social media truly serves your best interests or if you are affected by excessive social media use.

Zinnia Health and Social Media Addiction

One good way to get started is by deleting social media apps from your smartphone. Or if that seems too drastic a step, you can adjust the settings so that certain apps (like Instagram and Facebook) don’t send you push notifications.

Many smartphones allow you to set time limits for specific apps, so you only use them for a certain period before getting an alert to move on. You may be surprised by how quickly time flies when using social media.

Zinnia Health can help you move away from any behavioral pattern that’s not working for you — including social media. Our approaches to addiction treatment — including dialectical behavior therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy — can show you how to deal with the craving for social media. (19)

With Zinnia Health, you’ll have the chance to interact with other people and form real-life friendships that are much deeper and more fulfilling than social media followers and “likes.” Call us today at (855) 430-9439.


Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us