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Are we all social media addicts?

guest column

The more exposure you have to social media, the more likely you are to be addicted. Does this mean that all the Duke students who received Apple watches can become addicted to social media? In fact, the Apple watch study may be fueling an addiction even more worrisome than we know.

I spent this past summer baffled by my 3 year-old cousin who refused to eat any food until she was comfortably scrolling through her mother’s Instagram or watching a video on YouTube. Within the first week of coming to Duke, my friend in Gilbert-Addoms told me he had received an Apple watch and could not help but check his notifications as they came in. Do my cousin and all the GA residents with Apple watches use social media excessively? Or are they just “normal” Generation Z beings?

In March, 2019 when I read Roisin Kiberd’s opinion column in The Guardian, I was in complete denial of his argument that the human race is better described as a populace of automatons that outsource relationships and working lives to the internet. Can a ubiquitous behavior like that really be characterized as an addiction? The hoard of latest findings as published in the Science Daily that swarms my inbox undeniably answer this question. “Social media stress leads to social media addiction,” “Excessive social media use is comparable to drug addiction.”   

The stereotypical illustration of the basement-dwelling social media addict is certainly not new. Tamaki Saitõ, a Japanese psychologist, coined the term hikikomori to typify reclusive adolescents in Japan who “traded their social lives for internet, video-game and media consumption.” Unknowingly and unwittingly, we are all part of this hikikomori—and it’s reaching dangerous levels. 

86% of people across the world use social media daily. Recent estimates suggest that 20% of adolescents use social media for at least 5 hours every day. Since 2014, Instagram’s user base has increased by 100 million users per year. This platform’s heavy usage is evident from the statistics—2 billion “likes” occur and more than 100 million posts are uploaded every day. 

As of October 2018, Facebook had over 2 billion active users, three-quarters of which are daily accessors. Twitter’s 326 million users send out 500 million tweets every day. YouTube, Snapchat, LinkedIn, the list goes on. 

It came as a shock to me that some people are, in fact, more susceptible to social media addiction than others. Neuroticism—the degree to which one’s experience of the world elicits anxiety and stress—increases the probability of growing to be an addict. On the other hand, conscientiousness—the quality of being diligent and level headed—decreases this probability. One’s capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure also serve as predictors of social media addiction. 

Social media usage produces the same neuronal firing as that caused by gambling and recreational drugs. This is because social media provides immediate gratification, the experience of pleasure or fulfillment without any delay, through features such as constantly attainable, unlimited likes and quick shares. Using social media also entails minimal effort as platforms are designed to be easy to navigate.  

Studies demonstrate that retweets, likes and shares trigger the same surge of dopamine as cocaine. It is not only the  notifications or positive social feedback, but the act of self-disclosure on social networking sites that ignites this reward system. This means that “individuals place high subjective value on opportunities to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others.” However, social media is not only physically addictive due to its effect on the brain. Reports show that ten minutes spent on social media can cause a spike in oxytocin, a chemical hormone, at levels equivalent to those emitted on wedding days. 

With each use, the brain slowly rewires in such a way that one experience of physiological effects decreases for the same amount of time spent on the social platform. This is tolerance building. 

Perhaps in a few decades, social media addiction will be more overtly recognized and more scientists will investigate how the resilient fraction of the human population resists checking social platforms more than once a day. The fact that “27% of children who spend 3 or more hours a day on social media exhibit symptoms of poor mental health” calls for more robust, longitudinal systematic studies and the development of sustainable regulatory measures. 

The next time you see your friend scrolling through her phone while mindlessly eating at West Union or replying to your snaps a second after you send them, maybe suggest going for a walk in the Sarah P Gardens or trying zumba at the Brodie Gym. Flee from this social media addiction pandemic.

Sara Mehta is a Trinity first-year.

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