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Excessive social media use has many of the same effects as substance abuse, says expert
The average American spends nearly 2½ hours per day on social media, and that number more than doubles for teens, studies have shown.
For many people, the reliance on social media can feel much like an addiction — and many experts believe that’s exactly what it is.
“Social media addiction is not yet recognized in our diagnostic manual — however, we have seen a growth in social media use, and research has begun to show some similarities with addiction, just not enough to define a diagnosis formally,” Lindsay Oberleitner, a clinical psychologist and education director at SimplePractice in Detroit, Michigan, told Fox News Digital.
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SimplePractice is an electronic health records solution that serves more than 178,000 solo and small-group practitioners.
Another commonly used term, “problematic social media use,” does not quite capture the depth of difficulties that individuals are experiencing with social media, Oberleitner said.
“‘Problematic’ can imply risky behaviors, such as illegal behavior on social media, rather than the personal pattern of detrimental use to which social media addiction refers.”
Lindsay Oberleitner is a clinical psychologist and education director at SimplePractice in Michigan. “Social media addiction is not yet recognized in our diagnostic manual — however, we have seen a growth in social media use, and research has begun to show some similarities with addiction,” she told Fox News Digital. (Lindsey Oberleitner/SimplePractice)
One Reddit user, l3moncardboard, recently shared an experience with social media dependency.
“I am insanely addicted to my phone. My screen time is disgusting and I’m ashamed — it’s upward of five hours per day … It creates the worst case of anxiety in my brain and makes me overthink,” the person also wrote.
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“My days are quite literally dictated by if certain people respond to the snap I’ve sent them or not. How can I manage this? It’s absolute insanity and I can’t stand it.”Warning signs of social media addiction
Some of the telltale signs of problematic social media use can mimic the symptoms of behavioral addictions and substance use disorders, but on a smaller scale, said Oberleitner.
One of the biggest red flags is when the excessive use of social media platforms interferes with other daily activities.
The average American spends nearly 2½ hours per day on social media, and that number more than doubles for teens, studies have shown. (iStock)
“The individual might begin to withdraw from in-person events, disengage while at social events or quit participating in activities they used to enjoy,” the doctor said.
“We might also see concerning levels of distress when they can’t use social media.”
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Someone who is addicted to social media will likely continue to use it despite the harmful effects, Oberleitner said.
“For example, the individual is aware that the time spent on social media interferes with school or work performance, but they do not decrease their time spent,” she said.
“I am insanely addicted to my phone. My screen time is disgusting and I’m ashamed.”
The person might attempt to reduce the time spent on social media — but is likely unsuccessful.
“We may also see that family and friends are upset by the individual’s use of social media, to the point that it causes strain on their relationships,” Oberleitner noted.
Excessive social media use can mimic substance addiction, one clinical psychologist told Fox News Digital. (iStock)
Excessive social media use can also cause impaired school and work performance, feelings of isolation and loneliness, negative self-image, sleep difficulties, disordered eating and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, the doctor warned.
“Broadly, in addictive disorders, we see a pattern of a loss of control, compulsivity of use, negative consequences on personal and interpersonal functioning, and intense desires for use,” she added.The risk factors
While anyone can develop an unhealthy reliance on social media, it tends to be more prevalent among young people, Oberleitner said.
“Negative impacts from overuse are particularly problematic for youth,” she said. “Brain development continues into our 20s, and the frontal cortex, responsible for planning behavior, is the last area to develop fully.”
Someone who is addicted to social media will likely continue to use it despite the harmful effects, Oberleitner said. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Young people are also less likely to consider the risks of their harmful behaviors — making it harder to stop them, the doctor pointed out.
“Coping strategies, social skills and emotion regulation are all skills we learn and develop in childhood, adolescence and beyond,” she went on.
“Excessive social media use can interfere with the development of each of these areas.”
“Individuals who experience anxiety and loneliness are more prone to problematic social media use.”
As one teen user wrote on Reddit, “I’m quite young and want to enjoy my teenage years. My phone has caused me so much unnecessary negative emotions already, and I’ve just reached a point where it’s completely draining and dictates the way I go about daily life.”
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Individuals with high impulsivity are also more likely to display addictive social media behavior, said Oberleitner, as it is harder for them to stop engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
“It has also been observed that individuals who experience anxiety and loneliness are more prone to problematic social media use,” she added.Doctor’s tips for detoxing
When it comes to approaches to stopping the overuse of social media, one size does not fit all, said Oberleitner.
Many people use a combined approach, starting with a “full-stop period” when they don’t use social media at all — and then gradually restarting with moderation.
Some of the telltale signs of problematic social media use can mimic the symptoms of behavioral addictions and substance use disorders, but on a smaller scale, said Oberleitner. (iStock)
“The full-stop approach mimics abstinence-only approaches in substance use,” said Oberleitner. “It is unlikely to be feasible to never return to social media use, so the key is setting the time you want to step away.”
This might be a day, weekend, week or even a month, which gives the person a chance to “break the reinforcing cycle of social media use,” she said.
“A full stop can be as simple as hiding away computers and tablets, and removing phone apps that make social media access easy,” Oberleitner said.
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After the full-stop period, the person could resume use with “moderation or harm reduction approaches” in place, she said.
“Some examples could be setting a 30-minute time after dinner each day that you look at social media, or only engaging with it on the weekend for a limited time,” said Oberleitner.
“It might also include making plans to reengage with activities you have been missing out on because of social media use.”
One of the biggest red flags is when excessive use of social media platforms interferes with other daily activities, Oberleitner said. (iStock)
This approach is most likely to work when an individual has a network of individuals who will support attempts to cut back, the doctor said.
For some, it may be helpful to make accessing social media harder than usual.
This might mean removing phone apps, not saving passwords on browsers so extra steps are needed to sign in, and putting away tablets and computers.
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“Reducing access can involve an active choice to set a time each day devoted to social media while simultaneously committing to not accessing social media at any time outside of that explicit time window,” Oberleitner said.
When treating people with addictions, she often helps them identify triggers for their behavior.
Even those who don’t consider themselves addicted to social media can benefit from reducing their usage and adopting healthier relationships with the technology, noted Oberleitner. (iStock)
“The closer the approximation of the trigger to the behavior we want to change, the harder it is to resist,” she said.
“So regarding social media use, it will be tough to change our behavior if we are sitting on the couch with our tablet next to us.”Real people share detox tips and tricks
One Reddit user, urcrain, offered this tip: “Determine what you are spending most of your time doing on social media. If it’s meme hunting and sharing, try eliminating that. Find alternative ways to get important areas of social media in a less addictive way.”
“Try to find things to do that can keep you entertained and busy during the times that you usually want to pick up your phone.”
ZenithArmageddon offered more tips: “Try to find things to do that can keep you entertained and busy during the times that you usually want to pick up your phone. Busy hands are great to keep the phone away.”
This person also suggested, ,”If you find yourself returning too much, then try to reduce the amount of stimulation you get from your social media. Avoid ‘for you’ recommendations such as the explore tab on Instagram, and mute the stories and posts on friends who you don’t really keep up with. It’s OK to still look at what your friends are doing, but try to catch yourself before you go down the ‘explore’ rabbit hole.”
“Reducing access can involve an active choice to set a time each day devoted to social media while simultaneously committing to not accessing social media at any time outside of that time window,” Oberleitner said. (iStock)
Another user, NavyRedRose, suggested more approaches: “Some phones can have you set screen time reminders and downtime. For example, I’ve added a 45-minute limitation per day to certain social media apps. Once I hit the limit, it’s no more of that app for the rest of the day.”
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This person also wrote, “I noticed that using my local library’s app and borrowing audiobooks has helped me put my phone down more as well. I can listen to an audio book or podcast as a distraction, but I can also do something else while I’m listening that keeps me present in my day-to-day life.”
Other suggestions included adopting a “digital Sabbath” one day per week, only using social media on alternating days, practicing mindfulness exercises, and focusing only on quality content instead of “mindlessly scrolling.”
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Even those who don’t consider themselves addicted to social media can benefit from reducing their usage and adopting healthier relationships with the technology, noted Oberleitner.
The doctor also emphasized the “urgent need” for continued research and development in this area, as well as a greater integration of addiction-related assessment and treatment across health care. Weighing benefits and risks
Despite its risks, social media use is not all bad, Oberleitner said — after all, there was a reason for its rapid growth.
“Negative impacts from overuse are particularly problematic for youth,” said Oberleitner. (iStock)
“Social media can reduce stigma and isolation for individuals by finding networks of individuals with similar experiences and interests — connections that might not be possible within someone’s immediate community,” she told Fox News Digital.
It can also allow connection during isolation, such as illness, and enable connections through distance and time, she said.
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“Suppose we can continue to support efforts to help people decipher helpful from non-helpful, and informed from misinformation, when viewing social media,” Oberleitner said.
“In that case, it can also be an excellent source of access to information.”
Melissa Rudy is health editor and a member of the lifestyle team at Fox News Digital.
Don’t Get Your Next Covid Booster Quite Yet
An uptick in Covid-19 cases and the new school year have many people wondering when they should get their next booster. The short answer, according to experts: not quite yet — you’ll be a lot better off if you wait another few weeks.
In June, an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the next Covid vaccine formulation target the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant.
Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax are now working to update, test and mass-produce their vaccines, which will then need to be officially authorized by the F.D.A. Experts estimate that shots will be available to the public by mid-September.
“For most people right now, it seems to me waiting makes more sense,” said Dr. Paul Sax, the clinical director of the division of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
There are two main reasons to hold out for the updated vaccine. First, it will be a better match for the variants that are currently circulating.
The majority of the coronavirus strains infecting people right now are either descended from, or related to, XBB.1.5, so the decision to target that variant with the vaccine “was about as good as you could imagine for the moment,” said Trevor Bedford, a professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The vaccine will most likely also provide some protection against EG.5, which recently became the dominant variant in the United States, accounting for about 22 percent of current cases. EG.5 is descended from another XBB variant and has a few additional mutations, so antibodies produced by the updated vaccine may not be quite as effective against it. But the new booster is still a better fit for EG.5 than last year’s booster, which targeted both the original Covid strain and the BA.5 Omicron variant — neither of which appear to be circulating anymore.
Dr. David Boulware, a professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School, added that because the new vaccine is a better match for the current variants, he is “somewhat optimistic” that it will help prevent not only severe disease but also infection.
“Once you’re boosting with the variant that is closest to what’s actually circulating,” you will most likely regain some protection against infection, he said.
The second reason to wait for the new vaccine is that it will increase the odds that your defenses against the virus will be strongest when cases are expected to peak, historically between December and February. Antibodies wane over time, and protection is highest during the first three months following an infection or vaccination.
“Case numbers are increasing now, but they’re not at exceptionally high levels,” Dr. Sax said. “I can’t imagine, though, that they won’t go up again in November, December or January, as they did every single year in the past three years.”
If you’ve had Covid recently, experts suggest waiting a few additional months before getting the new shot. Your antibodies are already elevated because of the infection, and so the vaccine won’t provide you with much additional benefit during this time.
Vaccination is the only proven way to shorten a case of Covid, Dr. Boulware said. In a study published last year, he found that people who got Covid within six months of receiving a shot “had less severe disease and shorter duration of illness.”
If you’re worried about catching Covid in the meantime, use the behavioral protections you’ve employed throughout the pandemic: Avoid big crowds; wear a high-quality, well-fitting N95, KN95 or KF94 mask when you’re in indoor public settings; and try to make sure rooms are well-ventilated — even opening a window can help.