“My brain is kidnapped”: a team of experts found these ways to help young people addicted to networks

The Conversation

Many people have compared the addictive nature of social media to cigarettes. Consult your likes, they say, is the new smoke break. Others say unease over social media is just the next round of moral panic over new technologies.

We are a pair of researchers who study how social networks affect the mental health of young people. More than 75% of teens check their phones every hour and half say they feel addicted to their devices.

These are some of the things they have told us:

“TikTok has me by the throat.”

“I would say I am 1000% addicted.”

“I feel completely aware that it’s hijacking my brain, but I can’t let it go. This makes me feel ashamed.”

A group of women use their cell phones in New York City, February 10, 2023.Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images file

Perhaps you have had similar feelings yourself, no matter your age. While it is true that social technologies offer clear benefits (unlike smoking), many people still feel uncomfortable with the amount of time they spend online and often wonder if they are addicted.

Years of research have led our team to this conclusion: perhaps a better approach is to consider media consumption as a diet. Just as there are many ways to have a healthy diet, there are also a variety of ways to develop healthy, personalized social media habits.

The search for answers

An avalanche of research on social media use that began in the early 2010s shows negative impacts in areas related to body image, eating disorders, and social comparison.

In contrast, other studies point to the mental health benefits of social media, including social well-being, strong friendships, and exposure to diverse perspectives.

Other research shows contradictory results. In fact, inconclusive or mixed results seem to be a recurring pattern when investigating this topic.

The inconsistencies in these studies highlight the difficult problem of characterizing the healthy interaction between two complex systems: social networking technologies and the psychology of human behavior.

One problem is that the stress, anxiety, and self-esteem challenges that users experience can vary from moment to moment, depending on what they are watching.

Not all time spent on social media is equal. For example, messaging distant friends for an hour a day will probably make you feel more satisfied than spending 30 minutes a day doing doomscrollingan expression that refers to spending an excessive amount of time reviewing posts.

That is why researchers They are trying to distinguish between active and passive use of social networks. “Active use” refers to social sharing, such as sending messages or posting content, while “passive use” is strictly the consumption of social media content without participation, contribution or engagement with others.

But even this distinction is overly simplistic and has come under scrutiny. Some active behaviors, such as troll on Reddit, not healthy for everyone involved. And some passive behaviors, such as consuming educational videos, are beneficial.

Because healthy media consumption varies considerably from person to person, our research takes a different approach and focuses on users developing personal agency regarding their media consumption.

A four-week intervention

More than 500 college students with a wide range of social media habits have participated in our ongoing study.

Students begin by reflecting on their current relationship with social media and then set goals for the changes they want to make. This could include spending less time mindlessly scrolling (doomscrolling), selecting your feed in an app or avoiding sleeping with your phone in the bedroom.

Over four weeks, participants report on their success in meeting their goals. They also reflect on their feelings and experiences by journaling and completing standard psychological surveys that capture social media addiction and other mental health outcomes.

Our initial analysis indicates that the four-week intervention significantly reduces social media addiction for those who began with problematic or clinical levels of social media addiction.

Problematic social media addiction is associated with a number of negative effects including low mood, anxiety, and an excessive amount of time and energy spent or thinking about social media. People with clinical levels of social media addiction experience the same effects, but to a greater extent, and their habit patterns around social media resemble those of an addict.

Those with problematic social media addiction scores at the start of the intervention showed a mean reduction of 26%, and scores for participants who started with clinical social media addiction scores fell by 35%. These reductions brought both groups to a healthy range of social media use at the end of the intervention.

At the end of the four weeks, participants reported positive changes in their relationships with social media with statements such as the following:

“I feel like my connections with my friends have gotten stronger because now when I reach out to them, it’s to have a real conversation, rather than spending time responding to Snapchats.”

“I find (social media) much less attractive in many ways and I haven’t really felt the need to post something in a long time. “I think I’m…using it for fun or connection rather than distraction.”

“This challenge has positively changed the way I view social media and social approval.”

Positive change takes time

Like any behavioral change, adopting healthier media consumption habits takes time, dedication, and self-reflection. While our research focuses on college students, we believe that a similar four-week process focused on reflection can lead to profound improvements in the overall well-being of people of all ages.

That said, there are practical steps you can take right now to reduce your dependence on social media. This includes turning off notifications, deleting or limiting apps you consider harmful, curating your social media feed by unfollowing certain accounts, setting your phone to grayscale to reduce attractiveness, and setting aside phone-free time.

A truly healthy diet requires learning which foods make you feel best and enjoying eating certain foods in moderation. Similarly, our research shows that spending some time setting goals and engaging in self-reflection can change your relationship with social media, for the better.