Is Social Media Like Alcohol?

two smiling women sitting on wooden bench

It was just a social activity. At least, that’s how it started. You would only do it occasionally, but then it became every day – and eventually all day. You’ve found yourself lashing out at anyone who tried to tell you that maybe it’s too much. Life can seem empty or dull without it. You realize you may be addicted.

We could be talking about alcohol. But we could also be talking about social media. This article from The Atlantic got us thinking; is social media like alcohol? Here are a few reasons why we think the answer to that question is yes.

1. Both are likely to be harmless in small doses.

Let’s start with the casual user of alcohol or social media. In the case of social media, small doses can even be beneficial. For example, some people connect with long-lost relatives or friends (haven’t we all heard of people reigniting old flames through Facebook?). Or how about networking through LinkedIn? Or fixing a plumbing issue using YouTube (and saving hundreds of dollars)? On the other hand, the benefits of moderate alcohol use are less concrete. Mayoclinic.org suggests that about one drink a day may help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It seems that as long as you maintain moderate levels of consumption, there aren’t likely to be negative impacts on your health and well-being.

2. Both can be addictive.

According to one expert, signs of overuse of social media and alcohol could be “mood changes, social withdrawal, conflict, and relapse.” Both types of addicts may be unable to control their urge to consume more. Their abuse could be affecting their life, such as relationships, work, or their ability to accomplish meaningful goals.

When your brain develops an addiction to either social media or alcohol (and other drugs), it associates those activities with pleasure. This releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter. It is the same “high” you get when you have accomplished a goal. Dopamine balance is important; too much or too little of this affects physical and mental health. For example, Ritalin (for ADHD) works by boosting dopamine in the brain. And cocaine use causes a huge increase in dopamine, reducing the body’s ability to produce it naturally.

Neuhealthline explains social media addiction this way:

“Social media is made to be addictive. Each like or positive comment presents a little hit of dopamine to our brain, thus creating reward pathways in the brain causing you to desire likes, retweets, etc.”

The problem with this system of rewards through likes and comments is that their absence produces a low. You constantly want more, but can never really be satisfied. This leads to an endless cycle of wanting to post more content just to get more comments and likes. Eventually your body develops a tolerance to the dopamine, and you need higher levels of the ‘drug’ — or in this case, the ‘app’ — to feel the same high.  

This may be why social media usage on average is 147 minutes per day (well over 2 hours). But if we isolate the most affected groups – teens and tweens – usage is much higher. Research shows that ages 8-12 spend an average of 5.5 hours per day on social media, and ages 13-18 spend on average more than 8.5 hours per day! (Never mind the fact that you have to be 13 or older to use Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat.)

3. Both can have negative long-term effects on the brain.

Heavy social media users may be overstimulated and less able to ignore distractions, reducing cognitive performance. This may be because heavy usage “shrinks the part of the brain associated with maintaining concentration” (source: Neuhealthline). Long-term alcohol abuse can also affect concentration (due to brain damage).

Social media abuse also diminishes your transactive memory (how you store information). Despite posting pics of their events, heavy users don’t actually remember as many details about their experiences. Alcohol abusers experience this more acutely, often unable to recall details. (Thankfully, unlike alcohol, social media binging doesn’t cause people to pass out, at least not that we have heard.)

Social media abuse, like alcohol abuse, can lead to poor mental health. Heavy filtration and constant posting about activities may make other people’s lives or appearance (a more significant issue for girls) seem better than our own. Feelings of inadequacy and sadness can build up, leading to depression, eating disorders, self-harming, and substance abuse.  

Similarly, alcohol abuse can lead to excessive anxiety. However, the cause is mainly chemical, and the anxiety could last for hours or even an entire day.  

4. Both can be fatal.

Most of us are well aware of the risks of alcohol abuse. It can cause liver disease, cardiovascular damage, many forms of cancer, brain damage, and more expediently, alcohol poisoning. We won’t pretend that social media abuse is that extreme, but it can cause suicidal tendencies, especially among younger users.

We should note that social media while driving (oops, we’re probably all guilty here at Social for Good) is dangerous, along with social media while walking (like crossing streets). Drunk driving is perhaps a higher risk, but both can cause fatal accidents.

5. Certain types of people are more prone to addiction.

It seems that some people can use social media in low doses or small spurts but never develop a dependency. More research may be needed, but some reports say that people with low self-esteem or depression could be more susceptible to social media addiction.

With alcohol addiction, there are certain factors that may make people more prone to addiction as well. This includes depression, past trauma, and family history of addiction.

If social media is like alcohol, then should we avoid it entirely?

Some may argue that neither alcohol nor social media can be good… but we haven’t found evidence that they are actually bad for you in small doses. At the same time, behavioral, emotional, and chemical dependency (likely a combination) can negatively affect both types of abusers.

But do we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Do we have to go cold-turkey? All or nothing? We think that depends on the person; but as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Some people may need to delete certain apps entirely. But everyone could probably stand to benefit from a little preventative care. Here are some ideas:

  • Designate a time of day to use social media/and a time NOT to
  • Set a timer for how long you will be on certain apps (some phones have this in settings)
  • Turn off notifications for social media apps
  • Instead of reaching for your phone when you have a free minute, come up with an alternative you like. For example, take a walk, read a book, do some stretches, talk to a loved one (in person) if possible.
  • For the kids (of all ages), come up with a list of things to do when you’re bored that do not include the phone!
  • Pay someone else to manage social media (for your business). We’ve got an experienced and passionate team here at Social for Good who are happy to help!
  • Have an idea about what you want to do on social media before you hop on – so you can have more focus and better ignore distractions (we discuss this on our blog, “Engagement+Growth: Who to Follow on Social Media)

Are social media companies to blame?

We’re starting to wonder what would happen if investors and users call social media companies to account for their part in the problem. Are they profiting at someone else’s expense? Are they deliberately making their apps addictive? What actions could they take to prevent abuse?

BBC.com points out that online gambling sites use popups that help people take more notice of their usage patterns. For example, “This is how much you’ve gambled today, 10 times what the average person gambles.” Social media companies can do something similar. Maybe they can also provide better tools for preventing underage usage. And how about creating an optional setting for timing out, requiring a set amount of time before you can open again? 

The Wrap Up: Is social media like alcohol?

We think the evidence points to a significant overlap in how addiction is formed, why people become addicted, and the harmful effects of abuse. While we hope that social media companies will self-regulate, it’s probably best to start with taking preventative measures to avoid social media abuse on an individual level.

Published by Marissa Yi

Marissa (she/her) is a homeschooling mother of two. She is energized by helping people come up with creative solutions to help launch new projects, events, or businesses. When she is not writing or building websites, she loves singing, crafting, and baking pies!

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