YES, IT IS AN ADDICTION: A Discussion on Social Media Obsession

social media addiction

The minefield of social media use is something that has been discussed for nearly as long as it has existed. The subject was reinforced on a national level recently by revelations that Facebook, Inc. (now known as Meta Platforms, Inc., the owner not only of Facebook but also of Instagram, WhatsApp, and several other forums) for years has been marching ahead with plans while ignoring data on their destructiveness. The revelations have made the issue a more prominent national discussion.

To give readers a better understanding of the topic, Hamodia spoke with Matis Miller, LCSW, founder, director and supervisor of The Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy in Lakewood, New Jersey, who has worked extensively with social media addiction and related issues.

Hamodia will soon publish further discussions with other professionals on the effects of social media use.

What makes social media use especially dangerous from an addiction point of view?

Evidently, social media addiction and cell phone addiction are very much interconnected. This might be even more accurate when it comes to forums that are most heavily used in the frum community like WhatsApp and Instagram.

One of the things that the Facebook scandal has made very clear is that their programmers know exactly what they are doing. They know how our brains and bodies work, how we behave, and one might even state that it is addictive by design.

Gamblers experience a rush of pleasure when they win, but casinos have to know how to keep them at the table when they are not winning. Somehow, when someone might start thinking about moving on, a waiter shows up with a drink and the gambler decides to keep playing for a little longer.

The same type of planning goes into the devices used to keep people glued to social media. It’s designed to keep you compulsively checking by inserting enough interesting content and rewarding responses to balance the downtime and to keep you from tearing yourself away.

This process traps us since there is no schedule to these rewards and therefore we don’t know when the next one will come. The result is that we constantly check our phones. The stimulants are frequent enough to strengthen our dependence on these platforms.

Substances like alcohol, tobacco, or narcotics become addictive through a chemical element introduced to the body. How is it that a behavior like social media use can be labeled addictive rather than just a bad habit?

A lot of what we know about addiction has to do with the body’s release of a type of neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which the brain releases when it experiences pleasure. If we talk about substances such as drugs that are highly addictive, they trigger an enormous release of dopamine. However, even healthy, positive experiences of everyday life, such as someone smiling at you, trigger a release of dopamine and activate these sensors as well.

Let’s take a look at the addictive substance tobacco. If someone who is experiencing stress smokes a cigarette, it will likely relieve some of that stress and give them some pleasure. Once this occurs, they will crave the same experience again.

social media addiction
Matis Miller, LCSW

Something that is a commonality among all addictions is that doing the activity in question usually takes little effort and the initial reward is very high. It’s often an act of self-medicating one’s emotional and/or physical pain, as a means to get away from whatever difficulty the individual may be facing in life.

This is accomplished by activating the pleasure censors in your brain. This behavior becomes a vicious cycle because the person begins to crave more and more of that same satisfaction in order to tolerate their discomfort and withdrawal, and it’s never enough.

Let’s take a deeper look at people’s use of social media. When they post something and it receives a positive comment, that prompts an emotion of excitement and makes a part of their brain light up. People find the quasi-social interaction on social media rewarding, and it’s something that comes with much less effort than actual social interaction. Forging real relationships or interacting in person is much more rewarding in the long term, but it also takes much more time, effort and emotional investment.

Social media can quickly take over a person’s thinking as they become increasingly mindful about checking their device, and that can cause real impairment to their lives.

The connection to that experience is far more biological than we might realize, and not having it can lead to significant psychological and emotional symptoms of withdrawal.

If you are not on social media for a while or if you do not have your device with you, do you begin to notice feeling panicky, anxious and overwhelmed? Do you experience a change in your mood and feel increased irritability? Does it affect the way you interact with your family or friends? These are all signs of addiction.

People might go through their lives regularly using social media and feel that it has no impact on their functionality. However, if you can only function because you have your device, and the second it disappears the struggle begins — that’s an addiction.

Among those who use social media, how widespread are behaviors that you would consider addictive?

We define addiction as repeatedly engaging in a behavior despite its harmful consequences which leads to impairment in a person’s functioning. If you objectively look at the majority of people’s social media use, many if not most are exhibiting behaviors that border on addiction. Research shows that the average American touches their phone 80 times a day.

In recent years our bar of what we label as addiction has changed because we’ve become prone to normalizing certain behaviors associated with social media use.

Recent data show that just having a phone in your presence even without using it reduces a person’s cognitive capacity. The simple reason is that it is draining some of your brain’s ability to focus due to the amount of concentration that is automatically awaiting the next “ping” on your device. In our world, we can easily apply it to someone who doesn’t check or otherwise use his phone while davening or learning, but merely having a phone on him while during these times affects his experience. This is because there’s a part of his mind that is not invested in what he’s doing.

Another study showed that 25% of children and teens who use social media show patterns that look like addictive behavior. It impairs their ability to exist without it and leads to symptoms of addiction like anxiety, stress, and poor sleeping patterns.

Are certain profiles or groups more prone to social media addiction than others?

An individual who is struggling with mental illness or feels socially alone is certainly at great risk. Social media opens a whole unreal world where one can escape the challenges of their real lives. Someone struggling with these issues has trouble interacting with people and may experience low interest, motivation, and energy in getting through the day. Social media provides them with an immediate source of pleasure and of connection.

At the same time, there are many people who might not have a mental or emotional condition, but are still at higher risk. People with poor executive function skills who have difficulty controlling their behaviors and regulating impulsivity, as well as others who lack forms of self-discipline, are at greater risk of falling into social media addiction.

Others in the population of increased risk include individuals who are lacking a strong connection to community, family, spiritual growth, or learning. Those who are struggling in their marriage or who are undergoing other life stressors such as making parnassah or finding a job are also at higher risk.

Teenagers who are exposed to social media are definitely at higher risk due to the vulnerability that stage of life presents.

Someone whose business is tied to social media will obviously be at higher risk for becoming drawn into it and people carrying phones with them wherever they go makes this a far greater challenge.

social media addiction

What ill effects does social media addiction have on people’s lives?

A significant problem for many people is its effect on the quality of relationships. When a person gets used to connecting to people on social media, his or her relationships are easy, full of smiley faces and thumbs ups; there’s no real depth to these reactions. Furthermore, if one is dissatisfied with the relationship, they have the ability to drop it with little thought or consequence. Someone who is knee-deep into that world of social media, is less interested in putting in the effort that it takes to create a real connection to those around them.

This seriously affects marriages, but it even hurts people’s ability to develop meaningful friendships.

Another problem is that heavy social media use affects one’s cognitive abilities, specifically the ability to maintain focus and to be present in the moment.

I regularly see that bachurim who fall into social media or any type of cellphone addiction suffer in their ability to learn. It is not just the matter of time wasted on the phone. Learning Gemara takes a lot of effort and concentration; there can be a lot of reward at the end, but it takes a lot to get there. If a bachur gets used to getting reward through very little effort, it is then very difficult for him to apply himself to learning.

To what extent have you seen this contribute to people facing serious challenges with their Yiddishkeit?

Cellphone use in general is something that has made shemiras Shabbos a problem for many whom I believe the idea of being mechallel Shabbos was nothing they would have ever considered. It’s something that they can do without attaching their name and identity to it and it’s done behind closed doors.

There are many instances where improper relationships are developed through social media and texting that would not have normally developed in our community.

In general, there are a lot of unhealthy actions that once upon a time a person might have had an urge or desire to engage in, but to get the information and connections needed to accomplish them made it difficult and sometimes impossible.

On social media you can find many avenues to connect to people who are prepared to share problematic content and guide you toward harmful behaviors.

What types of forums do you see as the most dangerous from an addiction perspective?

There has been a progression in social media from Facebook to Instagram to Tik Tok. The theme is to make things shorter, quicker, and more stimulating. Less clicks, more images, less words, more action, and so on. I believe the quicker and easier a platform, the more stimulating it becomes, and the more dangerous and addictive it is.

Would you like to offer a closing thought?

Whether and when bachurim or girls should be taught about the dangers of social media and internet is a broad hashkafic and chinuch discussion.

One thing that I think we all agree on is that if you have a community where the issue is relevant, then it is necessary to discuss the dangers of social media, the risk of developing addictive habits, and the negative effects it has on many people’s lives.

Our youth should know that there are real risks for their marriages, their mental health, and their Yiddishkeit. We should teach them so that they are informed that once you get in, it is very hard to get out and therefore guidelines and fences are essential

Additionally, as adults we need to understand that when we make use of social media platforms and our children are directly and indirectly exposed, we are sending powerful messages. Children are impacted most by the role models around them and modeling is one of the most powerful methods of teaching.

These challenges are not going away and we have to be realistic. We can be certain that unless Moshiach comes, the challenges we will face five years from now will be far worse in comparison to what we have today.

We each need to do our part to put up the guardrails needed to maintain the havdalah between the world and Klal Yisrael.

But to do that effectively, we must be ready for the evolving changes in technology and society.

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‘It Is Simple and It Can Stay Simple’

Warnings against the dangers of social media abound, and there are many who would prefer to leave it out of their lives. Still, many in the business world feel that even if they would prefer to stand strong against the wind, the norms of modern day commerce will not allow them to.

Yet there is a proud group of Orthodox entrepreneurs who choose to heed the call of Rabbanim and their own inclinations to operate their businesses without WhatsApp, Instagram or other platforms.

Their stories show that their choices have been vindicated not only in the ruchniyus advantages but also that their ability to operate successful, competitive companies in the modern marketplace has not been affected.

Shlomo Zalman Reisman is the owner of KSE Supplies, a linen and textile supply company located outside of Monsey, with 20 employees.

He said that while many other offices such as his have set up social media groups for internal communication, forgoing it never felt like a challenge.

“Email is a very good tool for task managing because it lets each issue get discussed on its own. Everybody in the company knows that if they send one, they can rely on getting a response, but people can read it at their availability, and if it is something urgent, you can let them know that too,” he said. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t like more efficiency and better communication, but I think the system we have works well, and I don’t think that making a WhatsApp group would be the way to improve it.”

While he made it clear that the decision not to use social media for either internal or external business was based on spiritual concerns, Mr. Reisman said that he felt the benefits outweighed the potential losses from a practical perspective as well.

“Voice notes and constant little messages interrupt people from what they’re doing. People get distracted and its hurts their work,” he said. “There’s a net gain that people can concentrate better and get more done.”

Hershy Mehring owns Quality Kitchen Installation, based in Williamsburg, which has 10 employees. He said that he had seen the operations of enough companies that use social media to communicate, and the results were more than enough to convince him that following his conscience to forgo using such systems would be beneficial.

“I felt that it disrupts people’s work,” said Mr. Mehring. “You walk onto a worksite, and everybody is busy with their phones. It wasn’t something I felt we needed.”

His experience was that many businesses that feel compelled to incorporate social media into their companies are largely getting pressure from customers or vendors they work with who are used to communicating through these platforms. Mr. Mehring said he had been asked on many occasions to send images or information through social media, but when he explained that he had alternative ways of providing what was needed, it has rarely been a problem.

Mr. Mehring claims that most people’s feeling that they have little choice but to accept social media use as a necessity has more to do with their perception than reality.

“The fact is that running a business without it is simple, and if you want it to, it can stay simple,” he said. “We need to reinforce that to ourselves and to those of us who feel this is the right thing to do. We should realize that in this area, the baalei battim can do a lot more to help this issue than the Rabbanim can.”