The Plight of the Scroll Junkie: Examining the Ill Effects of Social Media Addiction

Traditional wisdom tells us that idle hands are the devil’s playground. It would appear, then, that we’re safe: Our compulsion to pull out our phones and scroll mindlessly when we’re given a quiet minute at, say, the mechanic or the grocery-store checkout proves our hands (and minds) are always warding off the evil, right? Why, then, are we slowly starting to actualize the adverse effects of constant info and communication via social media? Countless studies are hitting peer-reviewed journals that challenge the age-old notion and set us up for more mindful moments away from our devices. Here are just a few results. Like and share!


Facebook, I Wish I Knew How To Quit You

Though addiction seems like a strong word when it comes to our continuous need to be connected and informed, the metrics of dependency can be applied to most things we find pleasurable — social media being no exception. A recent study from Nottingham Trent University found “it may be plausible to speak specifically of Facebook Addiction Disorder because addiction criteria, like neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood-modifying experiences, tolerance, and concealing our addictive behavior appear to be present in some people who use [social media] excessively.” What about social-media withdrawal? It exists. Phil Reed, a Swansea University professor, noted in a study on problematic internet use: “We have known for some time that over-dependent people on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them, but now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.”


What’s more, social media actually manipulates our dopamine systems, putting us in a state of obsessive reward-seeking when we’re away from it. Identical to an addiction to more traditional substances, scrolling through feeds and responding to/creating posts can trigger the endorphins that your body’s craving. The problem mirrors any addiction in that there’s never complete satisfaction, so we feel compelled to keep going back. Notice the cycle? As we immerse ourselves in dopamine-triggering stimuli, our brains begin to anticipate them even before they happen, hence the aforementioned withdrawals. For some of us, it may be time to wean, and the first step is admitting we’re addicted.


Roll That Highlight Reel!

A study out of Germany’s Humboldt-Universität presents another pitfall of social media: envy. When 600 adults were questioned about their overall feelings after scrolling through “relevant others’” social-media profiles, 20 percent said frustration and envy were front and center of their immediate emotions. Dr. Hanna Krasnova, who led the study, also described what they call the “self-promotion/envy spiral,” in which users who feel envious of their social-media friends beef up their own profiles in response, creating a vicious one-up cycle in which “the envy-ridden character of the platform climate can become even more pronounced.” This makes self-perception increasingly negative, which leads to feelings of depression and inadequacy in otherwise healthy people.


Can We Get Some Privacy, Please?

It’s happened on more than once while speaking to my wife about something incredibly specific (a trip to Borneo on one occasion), and in my Facebook feed populated an ad for that very thing. Amazing coincidence or is Facebook “listening” to our conversations? Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress that the answer is no. However, there isn’t a real need for such, as Facebook compiles data on us in myriad ways that don’t involve the mics on our phones. Info in your contacts, for example, links you to a network of people you wouldn’t have sought out normally, but populate in a “People You May Know” sidebar. Your calls and texts are also taken into account, as are (brace yourselves) search terms you’ve typed in — even if you didn’t finish typing them and hit enter. Add to that being able to track your purchases and where you travel, and you’ve got some freakishly targeted ads and suggestions put before you. So I guess my phone wasn’t tapped in the traditional sense. Still, it’s a bit unnerving, and something most could go without.


Is There An Echo In Here?

Social media allows us to follow those who share like-minded stances and sentiments while muting those unlike ours. This is the echo chamber, and it can make for a jarring and upsetting set of realizations and wake-up calls when we log off. As in the physical world, surrounding ourselves with a diversity of opinions makes for a more well-rounded life experience that can stop us from demonizing those who see things from different perspectives. Opening dialogue and finding common ground with folks who, at the outset, appear completely unlike us can mitigate some of the anger and bewilderment we feel when our own views are challenged. It’s easy for us to lose empathy when we’re in an echo chamber and if we aren’t cognizant of this effect, social media can turn us into close-minded people.


Now about those idle hands: It’s almost unrealistic in this day and age to suggest ridding oneself of all forms of social media. From work to play, it’s integrated into our daily lives, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. If, as a society, we’re not exactly ready to let it go, it’s at least better we know. So here’s to mindful, healthy scrolling.