Per My Last Email: The Science-backed Consequences of Living Life Behind a Screen

April 15 - Dr. Nahal Delpassand

Young People Feel Lonely on Social Media

We are all aware of the digital dilemma that we face today: On one hand, our smart phones and other mobile devices help make our lives easier—but are we ultimately losing more than we are gaining by being attached to technology?

Research continues to emphasize the physical and psychological price we pay for ease and access. I recently facilitated a webinar on social media and the epidemic of isolation. I highlighted a recent study by Dr. Brian Primack and colleagues that shed light on social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US.

What’s Behavioral Addiction and Why Should You Know About it?

Is social media purposefully addictive? The answer is yes.

The frequency of log-ins is linked to behavior reinforcement, which impacts neural pathways in the brain. The unpredictable nature of the "like" algorithum and "infinite scroll" feature on Instagram and Facebook, for example, add to the addictive nature of social media.

Have you ever noticed how your feed never ends on Facebook and Instagram? Creators of these apps created the infinite scroll with an understanding of brain functioning. To obtain funding for these apps, they created features that would cause users to spend their most important commodity: time. The continuous act of scrolling keeps the brain engaged because it cannot keep up with its impulses.

These social media apps were created using the learning theory of psychology, and the neurotransmitter Dopamine plays a starring role. We are drawn to using social media because of the virtual validation that we receive; the unpredictable nature of getting "likes" on a picture increases the likelihood of logging in and compulsive phone-checking.

Consider this: If we knew we were getting the same number of “likes” for every picture we posted, we would be less inclined to check our phones. The unpredictability of the reward causes the frequency in behavior, which keeps us hooked because of the feel-good response delivered by Dopamine.

FOMO and “Not Measuring Up”

As part of my initial intake in private practice, I have a section that assesses social media use. I work with many adolescents and young adults, and I see the real-time psychological impact technology has on them. I have observed the psychological toll that comes from the need to over-share, and the obsessive propensity for social comparison. This phenomenon is also corroborated by the recent documentary Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age.

Adolescence is already marked by many developmental and psychological changes. Without social media, teens already have a magnified awareness of their physical selves, but these platforms add to the looming pressure. For example, the Instagram beauty standard exacerbates adolescent insecurities about physical appearance. My observations in clinical practice display an increased urge to engage in disordered eating behaviors, to attain what is believed to be the perfect Instagram body.

In addition, increased "FOMO" (or fear of missing out,) negative body image, decreased self-worth, social/romantic relationship distress, increased distractibility, and decreased productivity are reported. We are comparing our lives to the curated highlight reels posted by others. So the experience of not "measuring up" comes up too often. Ultimately, clients are looking through a perfection lens that is unattainable.

I am moved to share a quote that I came across, which I believe is applicable to the consumption of social media:

“Your diet is not only what you eat, it is what you watch, what you listen to, what you read, the people you hang around. Be mindful of the things that you put in your body emotionally, spiritually and physically.”

How to Assess Your Social Media Use

If you’re concerned about your social media use, ask yourself the following questions:

When you’re not online, do you spend a lot of time thinking about or planning to use social media?

Do you feel urges to use social media more and more over time?

Do you use social media as an escape from personal problems?

Do you often try to reduce your use of social media, without success?

Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?

Do you use social media so much that it has a negative impact on your job, relationship, or studies?

If you have answered yes to two or more of these questions, it is suggested that you make changes to how you behave with social media.

Steps Towards Balanced Consumption of Social Media

1. Turn off your notifications.

2. Evaluate your screen time each week using the embedded phone screen time function.

3. Set a timer for social media platforms. Do not exceed the time you’ve allotted yourself.

4. I often recommend a two-week digital detox to clients struggling with social media use. In my experience, this resets behavioral patterns and clients report positive mood, decreased anxiety and increased productivity.

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