Addictive Social Media Behavior

Plenty of research has demonstrated that the addictive quality of social media is very real. And according to a new study, heavy social media use may also contribute to a different type of addiction.

Psychologists at the University of Albany found that not only is social media (particularly Facebook) itself potentially addictive, those who use it may also be at greater risk for impulse-control issues like substance abuse.

The researchers surveyed 253 undergraduate students, asking questions about their social media use, Internet addiction, emotion regulation and alcohol use. They found that roughly 10 percent of users experience “disordered social media use,” meaning that they exhibit addictive behaviors in the way they use platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. To assess disordered social media use, the researchers included questions that reflected modified diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence, such as, “How good does Facebook make you feel?” and “Do you check Facebook first thing when you wake up in the morning?”

Those who were struggling with social media addiction were more likely to report Internet addiction (as measured by scores on the Young Internet Addiction Test), challenges with emotion regulation (such as poor impulse control), and drinking problems.

Psychologist Julia Hormes, who led the study, said that Facebook was found to have especially addictive properties. The respondents spent an average of one-third of their online browsing time on Facebook, and 67 percent received Facebook push notifications on their phones.

“New notifications or the latest content on your newsfeed acts as a reward. Not being able to predict when new content is posted encourages us to check back frequently,”Hormes said in a statement. “This uncertainty about when a new reward is available is known as a ‘variable interval schedule of reinforcement’ and is highly effective in establishing habitual behaviors that are resistant to extinction. Facebook is also making it easy for users to continuously be connected to its platform, for example by offering push notifications to mobile devices.”

The researchers hypothesize that disordered social media use is likely a symptom of poor emotion regulation skills, which heightens susceptibility to a variety of types of addiction.

“Our findings suggest that disordered online social networking may arise as part of a cluster of risk factors that increase susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addictions,” Hormes said.

The new findings join a growing body of research investigating the addictive potential of Internet social media use. MRI data has shown that the brains of compulsive Internet users to exhibit similar changes to those seen in people with alcohol and drug addictions. Harvard research conducted in 2012 provided some insight into why using Facebook in particular seems to be so highly addictive. Disclosing information about ourselves, the researchers found, is intrinsically rewarding. It activates the Nucleas Accumbens, a brain area that also lights up when cocaine or other drugs are ingested. But it’s not just posting on Facebook that’s addictive — it’s also receiving all those likes and comments. Another study found that receiving positive feedback about ourselves also activates the brain’s reward centers.

However, Hormes’ and other research can’t be taken as conclusive evidence that disordered social media use constitutes a full-blown addiction.

“The question of whether or not disordered online social networking use can be considered a ‘true’ addiction is a tough one,” Hormes said in an email to the Huffington Post. “I think the answer really depends on your definition of ‘addiction.’ Many people think of addictions as involving ingested substances. However, if we think about addiction more broadly as involving some kind of reward then it is easier to see how behaviors may be addictive.”

The new findings were published in the December issue of the journal Addiction.

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Self-Care and Depression

As a clinical psychologist, Mary Pipher, PhD, designed “healing packages” for her patients: activities, resources, and comforts to help them recover from trauma. Then, after Dr. Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia became a runaway best-seller, she herself suffered from an episode of major depression and designed a healing package of her own. “The essence of my personal healing package,” she describes in her book Seeking Peace, “was to keep my life as simple and quiet as possible and to allow myself sensual and small pleasures.” She created a mini-retreat center in her home and modified the ancient ways of calming troubled nerves to fit her lifestyle. Pipher’s healing package looked like this:

She accessed the healing power of water by walking at Holmes Lake Dam, swimming at the university’s indoor pool, and reading The New Yorker magazine in the bathtub every morning.loneliness1.jpg

She cooked familiar foods, dishes that reminded her of home: jaternice, sweetbreads, and perch; and cornbread and pinto beans with ham hocks.

She unpacked her childhood teacup collection and displayed it near her computer desk to remind her of happy times and of people who loved her.

She reconnected with the natural world by walking many miles every week on the frozen prairie, watching the yellow aconites blossom in February and the daffodils and jonquils in March, following the cycles of the moon, and witnessing sunrises and sunsets.

She read biographies of heroes like Abe Lincoln, and read the poetry of Billy Collins, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, and Ted Kooser.

She found role models for coping with adversity.

She limited her encounters with people and gave herself permission to skip holiday gatherings and postpone social obligations. She erased calendar engagements until she had three months of “white space” in her future.

She embraced her body through yoga and massage. She started to pay attention to tension in her neck and other cues from her body and let those signals teach her about herself.

msclip-030.jpgShe meditated every day.

These activities were exactly what she needed to emerge from the other side of depression. She writes:

After taking care of my body for several months, it began to take good care of me. My blood pressure improved and my heart problems disappeared. After a few months of my simple, relatively stress-free life and my healing package of activities, I felt my depression lifting. I enjoyed the return of positive emotions: contentment, joy, calmness and new sparks of curiosity and energy. I again felt a great tenderness toward others.

 

Psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, discusses similar healing packages in his best-selling book Unstuck. At the end of his first meetings with all of his patients, he will write out a “prescription of self-care,” which includes instructions on changing diet, advice about specific recommended meditations or exercises, and a list of supplements and herbs. “Among my recommendations, there are always actions, techniques, approaches, and attitudes that each person has told me — which she already knows — are helpful,” he explains. At the end of his introduction, he suggests each reader take some time to write out his or her own prescription. He supplies a form and everything.

Each person’s healing package is unique. Many people have benefited from more meditation and mindfulness exercises, psychotherapy sessions, and therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) that help unclog the brain of painful memories. Some people do better with more physical exercise and nutritional changes. While mindfulness and meditation have certainly helped many become aware of my rumination patterns, the most profound changes in others recovery  have come from the bags of dark, green leafy vegetables, yoga, and breathing exercises.

It’s empowering to know that we don’t need a doctor or any mental health professional to design a healing package for us. We are perfectly capable of writing this prescription ourselves. Sometimes (not always), all it takes are a few simple tweaks to our lifestyle over a period of time to pull us out of a crippling depression or unrelenting anxiety.

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