Addictions Data Verified

The Perils of Social Media Addiction

Written by
Dr. Alok Vinod Kulkarni
and medically reviewed by iCliniq medical review team.

Published on Jan 19, 2015 and last reviewed on Sep 07, 2018   -  5 min read



Addiction comes in varied forms. A lesser explored area is the addiction to the internet and social networking sites. This article attempts to discern the neurobiology behind this new found rage, and gives evidence based treatment approaches to combat this new menace.

The Perils of Social Media Addiction

Social Media:

  • Social media is defined as a form of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other contens in order to stay connected, or socialize virtually.
  • This medium is supposed to have social underpinnings. Regrettably, it has resulted in what has come to be known as 'virtual hyperconnectivity.'
  • It has lost its 'social' context, for which it was designed in the first place.
  • 'Reel' has replaced the 'real' with consummate ease.
  • More often than not, fictitious characters masquerade as real ones and in the process of concealing their identities, they come to believe that their hidden characters are indeed their real characters.
  • A trained eye can see through this facade, and upon discovering the real identity of the masquerader, one is left disillusioned in the end.

Internet Addiction Disorder:

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V) enlists this excessive usage of the internet as an addiction disorder. Psychiatrists have begun to see a large number of teenagers afflicted with the internet addiction disorder. The criteria to be met for one to receive this diagnosis are:

  • Excessive usage.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon being disconnected from the internet.
  • Development of tolerance.
  • Using the internet despite harmful consequences i.e, difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships with family and friends, social isolation, fatigue etc.

Three sub-types of this disorder exist:

  • Excessive gaming.
  • Sexting.
  • Preoccupations with e-mail usage.

It has become fashionable and trendy to describe oneself as a social media addict. This tag comes with its fair share of advantages and numerous disadvantages. On the brighter side, this portrays an image which says that one is abreast with the latest form of communication. On the downhill side, people are anxious that they are not having as much fun as their friends or colleagues in the work place.

They constantly keep a tab on what their friends are doing. This new found anxiety falls under the realm of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out. That is, these individuals fear that they are missing out on fun, and keep a compulsive check on their friends, through social media, to keep themselves updated about the latest in-things and trendier stuff. Taking selfies and uploading them on a host of social networking sites has become the new rage. And a national pastime too. Those who do not conform to this frenzy are often ridiculed for not being in-sync with the times.

This constant preoccupation with taking selfies and uploading them on social media platforms falls under the compulsive-impulsive spectrum of a psychological disorder. Individuals afflicted with this disorder keep logging into their accounts to see the number of 'likes' their newly uploaded picture has got. More the number of 'likes' got, more is one's ego boosted. Some even go to the extent of comparing the number of 'likes' their picture has got, as opposed to their friends' pictures.

To begin with, one gets a high from limited online interaction and appreciation. One may limit oneself only to a handful of online platforms. As time passes, one craves for more sophisticated software, greater number of social networking sites, better connectivity, the compelling need to spend more time on these platforms. This is because the initial attention and appreciation received begin to feel as being inadequate. This phenomenon can be likened to the development of 'tolerance' which is one of the criteria for substance dependence. That is, the initial pleasure experienced upon savouring a drug follows a downhill course, which requires the (ab)user to use more and more of the drug to experience less and less pleasure, in the futile and vain hope of getting the same old high.

Neurobiology Behind This Addiction:

Every time someone 'likes' their virtual representation, a surge of dopamine spikes through their mesolimbic tract. This pathway links the Ventral Tegmental Area to the Nucleus Accumbens, which is the reward center responsible for experiencing pleasure. Abnormal reward processing by the Nucleus Accumbens forms the basis of any form of addiction.

This is nothing but abnormal reward processing in the brain circuitry.

Withdrawal Symptoms:

A recent Turkish study aimed to determine the levels of internet addiction and the resultant physical and psychological behaviours ensuing from this form of addiction. The results of this study were mind boggling.

  • There was statistically significant direct co-relation between the students' internet addiction scores and the presence of maladaptive behavioural patterns like going late to bed, skipping meals, eating in front of the computer, etc.
  • This study also looked at the psychosocial ramifications of this new found rage. Internet addiction has also paved way for restlessness, anger, palpitations, tremors; all seen upon not being able to connect to the internet. These are nothing but classical withdrawal symptoms.
  • Such a level of dependence, will no doubt affect one's interpersonal relationships with family and friends.
  • Unfortunately, dependent persons continue to be dependent on their substance (in this case the internet) despite experiencing physical and psychological repercussions.
  • Akin to any other form of substance dependence, this too can present with withdrawal symptoms like irritability, anxiety, rage, sleeplessness, feelings of chronic dissatisfaction and hostility.
  • These negative emotional states are experienced upon being disconnected from the net, a classical sign of the phenomenon of withdrawal.

Thomas Edison once remarked '' I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it''. Industry-wallahs have seemed to borrow from Edison's principle of innovation. In trying to address the 'needs' of the modern day society, moguls of the cyberspace have had to see a generation of teenagers getting dependent on a new found medium. All this was unheard of ten years ago. With cut throat competition in the market and the blitzkrieg with which technology seems to be advancing, innovators in the realm of cyberspace seem to be racing against time. It is no surprise then that mental health professionals are seeing CEOs, innovators, teenagers and top honchos battling symptoms of anxiety and depression. Internet has also given rise to promiscuity and cyber bullying. Psychiatrists have begun to see victims of the cyber space, in the form of being blackmailed and bullied online.

What then is the Solution to this Virtual Menace?

The WHO predicts that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability worldwide. The aphorism "prevention is better than cure" could not have been applied to a better platform!

  • Parental Mediation: A tectonic shift in the attitudes of modern day parents is warranted. They should rigidly restrict the 'screen time' of their children. Screen time encompasses the time spent watching television, playing online games, using smartphones and other virtual media. Experts recommend to curtail the screen time to less than an hour per day.
  • Encourage Physical Activity: New age kids have to battle obesity which was unheard of in the earlier generation. Couch potatoes with expanding waistlines become ready fodder for a plethora of cardiovascular problems like hypertension, myocardial infarction and endocrine problems like diabetes mellitus. So stop slumping in your chairs and get moving! The 'high' obtained by physical activity exceeds the 'high' obtained by doing a substance. Body's happy hormones called endorphins are responsible for this.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: In those diagnosed with internet addiction disorder, CBT is the first line of treatment that is offered. It involves 'cognitive restructuring', a process of identifying cognitive errors and correcting them (easier said than done!) to bring about an attitudinal shift in the individual. If errors are corrected, an attempt may be made to change faulty schemas and constructs.
  • Pharmacotherapy: If the withdrawal symptoms are severe enough to cause functional disability and secondary depression, short term supervised use of anti-depressants may be recommended under expert vigil.

Social networking sites are not an awful lot. For the discerning individual, they have their pros and obvious advantages. However, the vulnerable populace (teenagers) fail to exercise restraint and become victims of this obsession.

Do you experience any of the above mentioned negative emotional states upon being disconnected from the net? Consult a psychiatrist online -->


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Last reviewed at:
07 Sep 2018  -  5 min read


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