Addictive Social Media Can Create Connections and Improve Lives. It Can Also Cause Widespread Anguish.
May 17, 2023
As the bell rings, signifying the beginning of fifth period, I walk to the library with my friends who, like me, don’t have a class at this time. As a busy person and student, I always have work to do and try my best to utilize it to the best of my ability. My friends, just as busy, sit down and tell me about all the work they have to get done. After a few minutes of collective complaining about our workloads, they take out some incomplete work along with their phone. After an hour has passed, I put away my now-complete calculus homework, and look over to see my friend looking down at their phone, holding their head up with one hand on their forehead. I ask if they also finished their work. The answer, as it has been many times before, is no.
They spent the last hour scrolling through either TikTok or Instagram Reels, seemingly using it to put off their work. At the end of the period, I know that they’ll once again express their worries about their workload, even after not taking advantage of their perfect opportunity to get it done. But why?
“It’s made to be addictive,” says Ms. Arroyo-Grynbal, a therapist at the San Rafael High School Wellness Center. She says, “TikTok [as a platform] specifically will pull from every little aspect of your life to grab your attention.”
It’s safe to say that most teenagers feel this effect. Modern social media, with its short-form videos, endless scrolling, and perfected algorithms, has become a massive part of our generation’s culture, with two out of every three American teenagers now using TikTok. Coming back from the pandemic, our society is more than used to utilizing technology in every part of our lives. Phones have become a vital part of socializing, consequentially creating an environment where social media rules a large chunk of many teenagers’ time. When put simply, this seems like a trivial situation, but if we take a deeper look at the effects of this, things get quite complicated.
From the time middle school starts through the beginning of college, teenagers go through an incredible amount of development. This includes physical, mental, emotional, and all other kinds of important growth and change. People discover hobbies, figure out what they truly enjoy, and learn about their creative side. Unfortunately for some people, social media is beginning to take up large portions of time, taking away from the important experiences of adolescent life, early development, and exasperating feelings of anxiety, and sometimes depression. An article from the Child Mind Institute states that “there’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills.” Young people who get too accustomed to social media can miss out on an incredible amount of opportunities to build an understanding of body language, social cues, and even smaller verbal cues. “In a way, texting and online communicating – it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context,” says the article.
In Quarter 2 of 2022, SensorTower states that 39% of Google Play installs used Instagram every single day, with 29% of TikTok users doing the same. The average global use time of TikTok was 95 minutes per day, with Instagram clocking in at 51 minutes.
“I find that I just want to go on for like five minutes but then I get distracted and it’s half an hour later,” says Eliza Gould, a senior at SRHS. Eliza uses social media for an average of 2-3 hours a day. “You can sort of lose track of time then be trapped…”
Eliza is far from alone in this feeling. One of the reasons many teens find themselves on TikTok or Instagram for such long periods of time is simply due to its addictive nature. This, of course, is by design.
As you use the app, “you’re not necessarily aware of the time that’s passed,” says Ms. Toy, the school psychologist at SRHS. The app pulls you in, creating that vicious cycle of scrolling that can go on for much longer than initially intended. “The addictiveness of the platforms is really an effect of more and more smart people becoming engineers and perfecting the algorithm,” she explained to me.
Social media may seem quite harmless, but the people behind it work hard to make sure that once the app is opened, it stays open for as long as possible. This is due to the fact that for companies like ByteDance and Meta, the owners of TikTok and Instagram, those of us who use these apps are nothing but numbers. Opportunities for profit. Most companies make money through consumers purchasing their products for a profit. To these social media companies, we the users are the product. In exchange for free use of their apps, they get our data along with the opportunity to put ads in front of us. An article by Vulcan Post confirms this, saying, “Advertisers are the ones who pay for the services, and it is the consumers’ attention that the sites are selling.” Spending more time on the app makes everyone more money, so they prioritize creating excessive usage by using this same sold data to keep your attention for longer. If the app is free, you are the product.
Sadly, this unrestricted time spent scrolling has an abundance of negative side effects. “There is an inverse relationship in the amount of time spent on social media and the amount of time involved in actual social engagement,” says Ms. Toy. Those who spend hours a day on social media create a ripple effect of wasted time they could be spending on more important, social, and fulfilling activities. By spending two hours each day scrolling, you are spending upwards of 56 hours a month, and 672 hours (28 full days) on social media in the year.
“It also takes away opportunities for boredom, which is the source of creativity,” explains Ms. Toy. Experiencing boredom is essential to human nature. In order to find hobbies, enjoy our time with others, and create meaningful memories, we have to experience that downtime. Creative acts aren’t only one of the most gratifying things you can do, but they also allow you to grow as a person.
Social media, and especially short-form media, has become an instant boredom killer that we can instantly access from our pocket. For many people, it has simply become a habit to take out our phone when we are bored, as it gives something to fill the space. Since she started using TikTok more, Sarah Casper, an SRHS senior, says, “I find myself getting bored more easily, and if I’m not doing something, I’m on my phone watching TikTok.” Sarah still has many hobbies, goes out with friends, and gets things done, but TikTok is always there to fill the space in between each little event. She clocks in at about 3 hours and 40 minutes a day on TikTok.
This loss of time also enhances the well known teenage habit of procrastination. Sometimes this procrastination isn’t even completely on purpose, but due to the addictive nature of the apps. When asked if she ever finds herself using TikTok to procrastinate, either accidentally or on purpose, Sarah says, “All the time, like 24/7.”
To add on to this, I conducted an online survey, ironically taking place on Instagram, in which just over 80 SRHS students took part. 91% of these students told me that they used social media for at least an hour every day. 85% of these students also stated that they feel social media can either constantly or occasionally take away from their other important activities, such as homework or time with friends.
This seems to be a recurring theme with modern media. Teenagers, but really everyone, experience this struggle of going on their phone whenever they’re bored, even if they aren’t exactly thinking about doing so. They essentially open TikTok on accident, then the way the app presents videos keeps them there for a long time. “Usually I’m just checking my notifications and then I get bored and I click on TikTok and get stuck in this hole,” said Sarah. It’s a cycle that wastes time without providing much genuine gratitude to the user.
It’s not that this happens every time a teenager goes on their phone – but rather that people do experience this phenomenon often enough that it has a noticeable impact on their life. TikTok is not some malicious source of life ruining material, sucking people in and imprisoning them, but it is giving easy access to an environment that is built to use up your time.
Although people will always procrastinate, this drastic version of doing so begins to create even more issues. As previously mentioned, the more time people use social media for each time, the more time they are losing as it is added up in the bigger picture. After the pandemic, Ms. Arroyo-Grynbal has noticed that students are feeling more intense anxiety about homework, which wasn’t seen as much in the past. “We turn towards social media to ease the anxiety [about homework], but it ends up making it harder, because then you’re avoiding homework and it builds and builds which can lead to more anxiety,” she says. But it’s not as simple as just putting the phone down and working harder.
These apps are aggressively addictive, and are a constant source of ingenuine satisfaction. “Prolonged use can affect the chemicals in your brain to continue craving more and zoning out in ways that prevent productivity and contribute to a feeling of inadequacy,” says Mora Ouneklap, a psychotherapist with the Huckleberry Youth Program and SRHS Alum.
This makes the relationship between each person and social media quite a bit more complicated. People aren’t just going on social media because they want to, but also because there are underlying causes that come from the chemicals in each person’s brain reacting to the usage. According to an article published by Jefferson Health, “Social media platforms drive surges of dopamine to the brain to keep consumers coming back over and over again.” Dopamine has motivational properties that drive people to continue doing the things that cause these pops of the chemical. Each video has some form of worth to a person. It can either be funny, informational, or even just feel like an escape from reality. That mentally and chemically drives people to open the apps more often, creating a cycle that is hard to get out of.
So, usage creates more usage, but also exasperates feelings of anxiety, stress, unworthiness, and sometimes even depression.
The CDC Bi-Annual Youth Risk Survey from 2021 displayed just how quickly and severely anxiety and depression rates have risen in the last few years. In 2021, it was reported that the majority of teen girls, approximately 57%, experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. This number was 21% lower at 36% in 2011. On top of this, 29% of teen boys say they feel the same way. The rate of girls who have seriously considered suicide has also increased from 19% in 2011 to 30% in 2021. About 14% of teen boys feel this way too.
Multiple studies have proven the fact that teenage and young adult users who spend more time on social media have a higher rate of depression, at about 13%-60% higher than those who use it the least. The way it affects the brain, the time that is wasted, and the things people see as they scroll all inflate this problem that has already been persistently building for years.
Although these numbers are incredibly concerning, it’s important to note that this is not something completely driven by social media usage. TikTok, Reels, and your other favorite platforms don’t directly drive people into depression, but rather have a clear connection to some noticeable causes of sadness among teenagers.
Looking further back, we can even see a correlation between mental health issues and the time of the initial release of popular social media like Facebook in 2012. “The rise of anxiety and depression starting in 2012 is huge,” stated Ms. Toy. As Facebook was officially introduced into college campuses, researchers found a 7% increase in severe depression among students. This problem is apparent and timeless.
Jonathon Haidt, a renowned American social psychologist and author, recently released a SubStack newsletter titled “Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here’s the Evidence.” He draws a multitude of very important conclusions about the problem on a human level. Haidt brings up the idea that the while the social aspects of these apps can be positive, the networking effects themselves are not healthy for everyone involved. Being connected is the main idea of social media, but this idea also affects those who don’t use the app.
Imagine a teenage girl who has disconnected themselves from TikTok and Instagram after recognizing the negative effects it was having on her. Would her health improve? In one way, yes, but overall, she might not feel a boost to her mood, as her problems have been replaced by new ones. She is now missing out on a massive part of modern teen culture, connection, and interaction, essentially making her an outsider in some ways, and making it harder for her to connect with friends and peers.
In the newsletter, Haidt compares this idea to the consumption of sugar. We know sugar isn’t healthy for us, but in moderate amounts, it’s very enjoyable and doesn’t really affect us, so we keep eating it. But, “social media is very different because it transforms social life for everyone, even those who don’t use social media, whereas sugar only harms the consumer,” Haidt states. Basically, each person is worse off quitting, but all people would be better off if we all quit.
This train of thought has started to reach as high as American Congress, with GOP Representative Mike Gallagher recently dramatically stating that, rather than sugar, these kinds of media are, “digital fentanyl,” particularly pointing out the, “corrosive impact of constant social media use, particularly on young men and women here in America.” The aggressively curated “For You” page is incredibly addictive and harmful for young people.
One of the big psychological problems with short-form video media is the constant change of context and understanding that comes with each video. Every time you scroll, the video catches your attention due to the new environment and information in each one. This, as many people know, has led to a prominent decrease in attention span, especially in young people.
“I can see it’s a lot harder for young people to pay attention to the written word,” says Mr. Simenstad, an SRHS English teacher. Books require a large chunk of time in order to read through a single subject or story, and are essentially the opposite of TikTok or Reels. Students are getting used to the constant changes of context that comes with social media, and are inadvertently losing their ability to focus on larger scale things such as books. “How can a page in a book compete with digital media?” asks Mr. Simentstad.
TikTok specifically has recently been in the spotlight for a plethora of controversies. In a recent study conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, entitled “Deadly By Design,” it is revealed that TikTok’s algorithm is pushing harmful content to users as young as 13 years old, the minimum age allowed on the app. For this study, accounts were made that were each said to be 13 years old. The accounts would briefly pause and like any videos recommended to them that involved body image or mental health. Just 2.6 minutes after creation, these accounts were recommended suicide related content, and 8 minutes after creation, they were shown content relating to eating disorders. When the accounts had words relating to these subjects, such as “loseweight,” in their usernames, they received 12 times as much content involving suicide or eating disorders. On these accounts, TikTok was presenting a video about body image or suicide every 39 seconds.
These videos themselves are not necessarily harmful – and people should never be shamed for having the courage to share their struggles and experiences. The problem arises when these young and impressionable teens are constantly presented with content that is negative, specifically towards mental health and body image. The study states that the algorithm pushing this content to young teens can have “a significant cumulative impact on their understanding of the world around them, and their physical and mental health.”
This issue has become so intense and noticeable that Seattle public schools sued social media companies – TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat – alleging that the platforms have been “causing a youth mental health crisis,” making it hard for the school system “to fulfill its educational mission.” The school district stated that the companies had “successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of the youth” in order to make more profit. In many ways, the school district is right. Students who experience a greater magnitude of anxiety or depression brought out by these kinds of media will perform worse in school. But is it really the companies’ fault that the kids are using their product?
Some parents agree with the school district, describing their stories of their children who had their lives ruined almost entirely by their access to social media. In fact, in 2022, there was the first ever declaration that social media contributed to the suicide of a teen, a 14-year-old Molly Russell in the UK. Molly interacted with over 2,100 pieces of suicide and self harm related content before her death.
To put it simply, we shouldn’t stop people from speaking about their struggles in any way, but we do need a genuine reform of online space and what is presented to users, especially those who are much younger.
This brings up another important phenomenon specifically seen in this style of social media: the intense and constant spread of negative news. When people are presented with negative news, it brings up emotions in them. Violence, abuse of power, extreme propaganda, and other similar kinds of news will make people feel anger, sadness, and a sense that they should speak up about the things that have taken place. This means that the videos that show this kind of news are interacted with through comments and shares more often than most other kinds of videos.
Modern algorithms for these apps are very much based on likes, comments, and shares that each video gets. If one video gets a lot of consistent engagement, the algorithm will keep pushing that video to people until it burns out. So, that recent story of another police officer abusing his power will get shown to everyone you know, but the story about something happy-go-lucky will get ignored. Similar to the suicide and body image content being shown to young teenagers, this constant bombardment of negative news can change the world views and emotions of people of all ages.
Although there is a vast amount of anxiety, and negative feelings associated with modern social media, there is a good side to it. “I think the misuse of social media and the sole use of interactions through a screen could be potentially harming people’s ability to connect on a more intimate level at times but I also see a lot of beautiful and safe relationships formed by strangers online too, so it can’t all be bad,” says Mora Ouneklap.
Used in the right amount, social media is a great tool that can be used to create connection, improve yourself, and be inspired to be a better person. The dangers of social media come when there is unmonitored and unrestricted usage. “When we don’t use it intentionally it has more negatives than positives,” says Ms. Arroyo-Grynbal. When we are conscious of our usage, and the reason for our usage, it comes with much fewer negatives.
For example, an SRHS Sophomore, Adrian Schubert, has found that he enjoys using Instagram Reels for just 10-15 minutes a day. “I’m there for a reason,” he told me. He believes that it’s ridiculous to use it too much, as it just takes time away from other things that you can and should be doing. “I just don’t have the habit of staying on it all day.” His usage proves that social media has simply become a habit of our society that can be avoided or rewired. He is intentional with his usage, and finds it as just a fun distraction for a bit each day.
With this in mind, I think it’s important to understand the Goldilocks Effect as we move forward. This is the idea that people should be inclined to seek just the right amount of something. In this case, finding the sweet spot where we can use social media just enough that we feel its benefits while mostly avoiding the hazardous side of it. Of course, it’s a massive national and even international issue that will take time to work on, but each person can put in the work to improve their own situation. Understanding our relationship with this media, and creating a positive environment of usage is entirely possible and can make a huge difference.
What would you do to have an extra hour of free time every day? What if it was two, or even three hours? It could mean a lot less stress around homework and responsibilities. It could mean going out with friends or family on a day you usually wouldn’t. It could give you time for making music, playing games, learning to cook, reading, or anything else you find gratifying. Once this free time is gone, it can’t ever come back, and it will become increasingly uncommon with age.
What would you give to have that time?