Why quitting obsessive social media use is so hard

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Technology has many benefits, but the pandemic may have bred millions of social media obsessives. Many are caught in this technological dopamine trap.

I’ve been on social media since lockdown, constantly checking for updates and always hoping for that beautiful and unpredictable sound of notifications in my inbox. For a moment I feel good, like a dog with a new bone, but shortly afterwards I feel empty again.  

I am not alone in this compulsive social media use, which takes its toll on our work and our wellbeing. The UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, reported that internet use exploded early into the pandemic. But it’s a global phenomenon. In a 2020 survey in India for example, which has 326m social media users, 87 per cent said they were using social media more than before lockdown.

What's behind this rise? Is it loneliness, less managerial oversight or lack of incentives? The answer lies deep in psychology and in a complex chemical response system in our brains. Dopamine, the chemical that regulates the feelings of pleasure and desire in the brain, is a powerful drug. Way back in 2012, researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in America produced a study that concluded Twitter and Facebook were more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes.

Social media can help in a pandemic. You don’t need research to tell you that these digital platforms have replaced much of our everyday face-to-face social interaction. They are invaluable tools for journalists like myself to meet new connections and sources on platforms like Twitter while working from home. Even researchers who study the addictive nature of social media acknowledge these platforms brought people together at a difficult time. Social media has given people a way of connecting in a time of social distancing.

Nonetheless, it seems we are increasingly dependent - not only on the usefulness, but on the dopamine kick. We’re elated when we satisfy our curiosity, receive praise or just get a sense of social belonging.

During the pandemic, our need for social interaction has grown while actual interactions have declined. Long before Covid-19, social media junkies were getting their dopamine hits from cleverly engineered platforms but it has become a particular problem under social distancing.

What kind of addiction is social media? There is a raw definition of addiction or ‘dependence’ as the World Health Organization calls it. It includes any behaviour that features a strong desire or sense of compulsion to do something. It is often used in the context of drugs and substance abuse. There are also withdrawal symptoms.

I talked to associate professor Daria Kuss, researcher at the International Gaming Research Unit and Cyberpsychology Research Group in the Department of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. She explains that there are parallels between the scientific understanding of addiction, especially in the context of substance addiction, and compulsive social media use.

Kuss, together with her research colleague Mark Griffiths, published work on the topic in 2012 and 2017 that looked at all the peer-reviewed research on the parallels between internet or gaming addiction and other, more conventional addictions. 

The 2012 meta-study found neurobiological correlates of problematic internet use similar to those found in people who have substance-related disorders. The research also found links between internet over-use and a range of psychosocial consequences including mental disorders such as somatisation, obsessive-compulsive and other anxiety disorders, depression, dissociation, introversion and psychoticism. But these are the extreme cases; most won’t show such dire symptoms.

Research in South-east Asian countries has also grown fast in recent years. In Asia, internet addiction is considered a serious threat to mental health, particularly in South Korea and China. 

A study by RPCNA from last year found adolescents upped their use of social media sites and streaming services during the pandemic. Those who scored highly on compulsive internet use and social media use also showed high scores on depression, loneliness, escapism, poor sleep quality and anxiety related to the pandemic.

Are lockdown ‘work-from-home burnouts’ to blame on social media? One survey thought there might be a link between mobile device dependence and burnouts as the pandemic made life for many, much harder to cope with. More obvious is the link between heightened social media use and productivity. High usage during work hours may eat into employees' time. If there is much to do it may add to their stress levels to finish work. More constant stress at work leads to more burnout symptoms.

The Anatomy of Work 2021 Index survey by Asana, a firm that builds software for online team organisation, found that employees suffer from longer work days than before the pandemic. It is partly exacerbated by more meetings, which leads to waiting until the evening and weekends to get important work done. Another factor is little separation between work and home, the authors claim. 

The UK has reported low productivity levels for a while but today’s circumstances make things worse. Instead of technology helping companies and staff to do things faster and better, compulsive social media habits drag us away from being more productive. This trend towards less productive work environments is costly. A 2016 corporate study by TeamLease, a human resources company, found that employees spend more than 32 per cent of their time on social media every day for personals reasons. With lockdown in place and more people working exclusively from home, this number may have grown further.

This addiction is not an accident. There are cues and nudges built into social media software by platform engineers that are meant to push our buttons and trigger psychological responses.

There are several elements that social media companies took advantage of when building these features. A social validation element helps to affirm our existence, similar to someone smiling at us in real life. As we get less of the real experience, more of us are seeking out social validation online instead.

Twitter's ‘retweets’ or ‘likes’ are good examples. They constitute social signals that make us initially feel good and valid. Chamath Palihapitiya, an early senior executive at Facebook, said that “we get rewarded with these short-term signals: hearts, likes, thumbs-up. We conflate that with value and truth. Instead, what it really is, is fake brittle popularity. That is short-term and that leaves you even more vacant and empty than before you did it. It forces you into the next vicious cycle: what’s the next thing I need to do now because I need it back. Think about that compounded by two billion people. Think about it, how people react to the reactions of others. It is just really bad."

With even more competition online during the pandemic, it is getting harder and harder to get this form of validation and as such, sufficient dosages of dopamine.

Getting nudges in an unpredictable and insufficient manner is also counterproductive and increases longing. Reward systems have a more powerful effect when they are less predictable, when there isn't a regular pattern, Kuss says. Psychologists call it ‘intermittent reinforcement’. It works for mice in the labs and dogs in training too: if you give them rewards from time to time rather than every time, their seeking behaviour is going to be increased and they're more likely to maintain the behaviour. “It is one reason why social media are a pleasurable activity for people to engage in because you don't really know when a reward, in the form of a like or a message or notification, is going to come”, Kuss explains. 

Research makes several connections to drugs. Drug use lights up a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. A study by researchers at the Freie Institute in Berlin measured respondents’ brain activity while they received positive feedback about themselves and found the same region becomes more active.

Operators are offering more complex features for self-portrayal on their platforms; what was a simple photo profile now has ‘pinned’ tweets or biographical detail. And if more people are posting, that means investing more time to keep up.

A 2020 Netflix show called the Social Dilemma, a documentary-drama hybrid, explored how social networking services affect people. Ex-employees explain how programmers built-in features introduce risks. The movie portrays data mining and manipulative tech digging into our social lives, according to a New York Times review. But it also attracted criticism for making a direct link between rising mental illness and social media use. The makers failed to “acknowledge factors like a rise in economic insecurity,” said the review. “Polarization, riots and protests are presented as particular symptoms of the social-media era without historical context.”

We shouldn’t jump to gloomy conclusions, because we don’t yet know how it will all play out. It needs more research and "we need research that is not catastrophising social media use," Kuss warns.

Some people can develop negative consequences because of using social media too much, but it is only a very small minority of high-frequency users who will have these kinds of problems. "I think we need to have a very healthy approach where we are considering all sides of the story". 

How can you improve your relationship with social media and your general well-being? Kuss says focus on self-care, "especially now when lots of people are confined to their homes". 

It is often about taking time off from digital media. “It is not easy”, she admits, “but it is certainly possible”. It includes making sure that when doing something like watching a movie, social media isn't a part of it. You could leave the smartphone in a different room or in a handbag: "Out of sight, out of mind", she says.

There are also site blockers for browsers. One for Google Chrome is called ‘BlockSite’ and is advertised as: ‘Stay focused & control your time’. There are a plethora of reviews for apps that make a living out of helping us block access to sites. There are several other ways to block sites like Twitter. 

There is also the element of context. When a group of heroin-addicted veterans returned from Vietnam to the United States, many seemed to have been cured by the mere change in scene. Lee Robins, a researcher, found that when these soldiers returned home, only 5 per cent became re-addicted within a year and 12 per cent relapsed within three years. When the context changed, so did the habit, James Clear writes in his book ‘Atomic Habits’.

We can try replicating the example for the web. A virtual machine can help you start afresh every time you open a new session. This way, you avoid saved social media sites and logins, removing quick shortcuts to accounts, discouraging use. But these techniques may fail to address the underlying problem.

One problem with social media addiction is that it is not a formally recognised disorder in health and medicine. Internet addiction is excluded in the official classification system of mental illness and disorder, and there are no formal diagnostic criteria available in the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10). But internet addiction is recognised by practitioners and professionals and internet addiction centres do treat addictive behaviour. 

In Britain, it is still hard to find help, it seems. A Google search for “internet addiction help UK” finds a number of helplines. But the offering is still thin. Kuss says that from a clinical perspective, the only clinic that is currently available via the NHS in the UK to help people with problematic technology use is based in London. There are charities that offer support via helplines and tools for children, educators, and professionals.

There is another cure: if addicts could get all the likes and notification they wanted, the game would quickly become dull, says Kuss. The compulsion would evaporate. If every game with a slot machine makes you a winner, where’s the fun in playing it? But social media can’t make everybody a star. 

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