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Soft Addictions - Hard Consequences: Is Social Media Ruining Your Wellbeing?

Too many of us know the compulsion: One more YouTube video... a check to see how many Facebook likes were harvested by one of our witticisms… a switch over to the Twitter or Tinder notifications...back to YouTube… In the blink of an eye, a couple of hours have vanished. Our sleep, work or family life are that little bit worse for wear. When such casual distraction becomes routine and systemic, it’s not necessarily addictive in a clinical sense, but it creates neurological activity and symptoms of unmanageability that are typical to addiction. If the first thing we do on waking up is to light a cigarette, we are probably addicted. The same is true if we impulsively reach for the phone within seconds of opening our eyes.

The UK average for staring at a computer, tablet and phone is now nearly 3 1/2 hours a day.

If our mental space is dominated by what we do in cyberspace, the drop in  “in real life” wellbeing can be quite marked.

Internet and social media addiction are sometimes described as “soft addictions”: lacking the social stigma and glaring destruction of a habit, but still capable of being ruinous to our mental health.

It’s no secret that aspects  of social media behaviour can be neurochemically similar or even identical to aspects of such potentially addictive behaviours as gambling. Much of the gambling buzz isn’t to do with winning or losing as much as it is connected to thoughts and feelings during the race, match or spin of the wheel - the highs and lows of anticipation rather than the result. Similarly, when we post online hoping for approval, we get a dopamine hit for any thumbs up. But 5 minutes without gratification for our humour, insight or glamour can bring on a bit of a crash, so we’re tempted to pull the lever again. Facebook founder Sean Parker is one of many insider whistleblowers to warn about exploitation of our innate psychology

A key difference between social media and other media is that it presents less “stopping cues”, such as the last page of a book or the rolling credits of a film. Scrolling through feeds can literally be infinite, quite unpunctuated and all the more trance-like.

If we are away from the internet for even a short while, craving can subside quickly,  but when it is easily at hand we can easily be lured to return due to a nagging “fear of missing out” . Social media can be a classic avoidance strategy from everyday tasks - another parallel with substance misuse and addiction.

We can end up turning to a device, rather than a human, as a coping mechanism for the stresses of modern life. Sadly,  there’s no app for strong relationships or work satisfaction.

There is a broader social impact too. A friend of mine recently went backpacking in Thailand for the first time in 20 years. When he’d last been, the backpacking culture was much as it had been since the days of the 1960’s hippy trail. Making friends among Thais and people from all over the world was easy, casual and fun. Much of that thrill has vanished now, so many were the people staring and tapping away at the little glass screen.

Away from that screen, time can be spent mulling over arguments we’ve had with trolls we will never meet, or subtly impacted by those 2D spectacles of unattainable false perfection that are other people’s seemingly more exciting lives. We can invest huge amounts of time, thought and effort into our own “cyber ego”, bearing little relation to our 3D presence and interpersonal skills.

In the context of thousands of years of civilisation and millions of years of evolution, a decade or two of mass internet access has not given us the collective time to properly adapt to its cultural and psychological effects. This is a conversation that needs to continue, as does our own personal reflection on habits.

Business Insider’s Emma Fierberg binned social media for a month. Despite early withdrawal symptoms she reported “My well-being has improved tenfold. My mind has never been so clear. I feel like I'm learning how to properly communicate in a world without social media. I’ve been given more time with my thoughts.”

This article isn’t trying to add to moral panic or invoke the spirit of General Ludd - there are many more good things to say about the rise of social media than there are bad. But if you sense your habit may have gone too far, it can be helpful to observe and reflect on obsession and impulse as they happen, and to be aware of any changes in brain chemistry you feel when engaging (or not engaging after some heavy use)

Is it frustrating or a relief to be away from social media, does it feel like something you are resisting? Do you quickly return to the same or higher levels of engagement after a break?

Can you successfully limit your screen-time? What more enticing activities can take you away from it? As with all things, there’s an art to striking a balance. If you manage to maintain a healthy use of social media, it seems you will be doing better than a growing number of people, your happiness and wellbeing will be more secure. Then you go and tweet about it 😜

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