Do you feel like something is not right or you are missing something when you don’t use social media even for a few hours or even minutes?

Then you could be suffering from an addiction similar to that faced by those who are dependent on alcohol, cigarette or even drugs.

A research by Harvard University has revealed that self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations.

“When someone experiences something rewarding, or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise,” says the study.

Just like substance abuse, social media addiction can have a number of negative consequences. These include loss of a job, break down in relations and mental instability.

Other effects are mood swings and experiencing unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms when social media use is restricted or stopped.

The addiction problem is bound to rise as more people find use of social media platforms indispensable.
A report by Social Media Lab Africa on Kenya’s social media habits for 2020 shows that 91 per cent of WhatsApp users access the platform daily.

“Seventy-seven percent of Facebookers visit the site daily. 67 percent of YouTubers users also visit the site daily, another 28 percent use it a few days a week, while six percent say they use the video-sharing platform less often,” the report reveals.

The survey also shows that 28 percent of social media users in Kenya spend more than two hours online daily. However, a 54 percent of Kenyans spend less than one hour on social media daily, but is a big pointer to the existing high levels of social media addiction in the East African nation.

“Thirty percent of WhatsApp users, 21 percent of YouTube users and 20 per cent of Vimeo users spend more than three hours online daily, while 60 percent of WhatsApp users, 46 percent of Facebook users and 29 percent of YouTubers spend more than two hours online every day,” says the survey.

Psychologist Joan Nyambura says the impact of social media addiction is far-reaching, especially among students. The problem, she says, can lead to a decline in performance among college.

“Even relationships and marriages have suffered due to this type of addiction. There is so much attention to the sites that some people totally forget about their core responsibilities,” she says.

There exists, she notes, strong link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm and even suicidal thoughts.

“There is a direct correlation between cognitive behavioural habits and social cognitive effects, resulting in negative consequences related to family, personal and professional life due to excessive use of mobile social networking sites,” she notes.

Jena Hilliard, an expert at Addiction Centre in the United States, says although the majority of people have no issue in the way they use social media, a number of people become addicted to social networking sites and engage in excessive and compulsive use.

“Social media addiction is a behavioural addiction that is characterised as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas,” she says.

Ms Hillard says social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible.

She notes that studies have demonstrated that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites have affected the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine. In fact, social media interaction is compared to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system,” she warns.

This, Ms Hilliard says, is noticeable in social media usage; when an individual gets a notification, such as a like or mention, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways, causing him or her to feel pleasure.

“In real life, it’s estimated that people talk about themselves around 30 to 40 per cent of the time; however, social media is all about showing off one’s life and accomplishments, so people talk about themselves a staggering 80 percent of the time,” she says.

When a person, for instance posts a picture and gets positive social feedback, it stimulates the brain to release dopamine, which again rewards that behaviour and perpetuates the social media habit.

There are a number of signs that indicate that one may be addicted to social media. Ms Nyambura says if you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use the sites, then you are treading on a dangerous territory.

“If you feel the urge to use social media more and more or you use social media to forget about personal problems, then you are addicted,” she says.

If you often try to reduce use of social media without success, if you become restless or troubled if unable to use social media or if it prevents you from performing your duties, then you need psychiatric assistance.

However, just like any addiction, this can also be broken.
“One of the best ways to break an addiction to social media is to set boundaries and reduce screen-time. However, if the addiction is too severe you may require professional help or get rehabilitated,” Ms Hilliard advises.

Turning off social media notifications is one of the ways of dealing with the addiction. It will also help a great deal to stay away from such sites while working.

“You need to delete social media accounts that are of less value to you. Sometimes you need a 30-day ‘digital detox’ to break out from informational overload. Be mindful of time spent on social media. Use an actual timer to indicate when your browsing time is up,” counsels Ms Nyambura.


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