How to Identify Social Media Addiction and Problematic Use: A Parent Guide

Person using Facebook on a laptop while also using a smartphone

Social media is a prevalent part of our day-to-day world. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and Facebook allow us to connect with friends and loved ones through short snippets of information designed to catch our attention.

Depending on the application, you may share a text update of your day on Facebook, a picture of your dog on Instagram, and a short video on TikTok. Each of these social media platforms allows users to add friends or subscribers who will instantly be able to view any content you publish when they follow you via their feed.

Person using Facebook on a laptop while also using a smartphone

While social media promotes connectedness within your friend community, it can also be highly addicting and distracting. As new social media platforms continue to develop, parents are tasked with overseeing their children’s and teens’ social media use.

While encouraging children to communicate with their friends is important, parents must also be able to determine when social media has become problematic. This guide is one of our useful resources that provide parents with the information they need to ensure that their children’s social media use remains reasonable.

Two kids both using smartphones

Social Media Use Among Teens

In a recent survey by Pew Research, nearly 66% of parents reported a belief that parenting is tougher now than it was 20 years earlier, citing new technologies like social media and tools like smartphones as the biggest driver for the difficulty.

In that same study, over half of the parents surveyed also cited a belief that their child spent excessive time on a smartphone or mobile device. Similarly, over a third of the parents stated that their child spent excessive time on social media platforms.

For teenagers, popular platforms include Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram, with roughly 35% of teens reporting that Snapchat is a tool that is important to them.

Pros and Cons of Social Media Use

Social media has both positive and negative aspects. Since social media apps are available to everyone for free, they’re widely used by people of all ages.

Benefits of social media include:

• Easy to stay connected with friends
• Ability to meet new people with similar interests
• Find community and support for certain activities
• Share photos or videos for fun or to keep people up to
date
• Express personal opinions

Drawbacks related to social media include:

• Takes time away from “real life”
• Exposure to inappropriate content or dangerous people
• Cyberbullying
• Privacy concerns, such as being hacked or identity theft
• Interference with schoolwork or family activities
• Excessive amounts of advertisements
• Potential for social media addiction

While social media can be a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, it must be moderated. Parents can ensure that their children and teenagers are safe on social media platforms by staying engaged and remaining observant.

What leads to teen social media addiction?

Like drugs and alcohol, using social media too much is a behavioral addiction. Regularly scrolling through images, posting and receiving positive affirmation, and other stimuli create the chemical dopamine in the brain. This leads to feelings of pleasure and reward that make it difficult to stop the behavior.

As the feelings of pleasure and reward are received, the brain seeks more of them. This results in additional time spent on social media platforms. A tolerance will begin to form, leading to an increased need to devote more time online to create more dopamine.

Over time, tolerance can lead to dependence. As teenagers become more accustomed to checking social media platforms, they’ll feel out of sorts if they don’t stick to it. This often results in full-blown addiction, just as with chronic alcohol or drug abusers. Various social media companies design their platforms purposely to make users want to use them more and more.

It's time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, and demand tech companies stop collecting data on our children.

President Joe Biden,
2022 State of the Union Address

Social Media Addiction vs. Other Addictions

When most people think of addictions, drugs and alcohol are the first things that come to mind. Drug and alcohol addictions can result in declining health, the inability to work, unhappy familial relationships, and serious financial issues. In the worst cases, these types of addictions are fatal.

Using social media too much is unlikely to result in death, but it can still have serious repercussions. Teenagers who spend too much time online are less likely to get good grades, because they’re sacrificing time they could be using to study.

They may give up activities such as sports or clubs in favor of time online. Relationships with the family can suffer when a teen’s focus is shifted to regularly posting updates on social media instead of traditional family affairs such as doing chores, having dinner together, and spending time with siblings.

In some circumstances, an addiction to social media can lead to mental health issues. Common mental health problems may develop, including depressionanxiety, and low self-esteem. If these disorders develop, the teen may need therapy or medication to overcome them.

In worst case scenarios, these declining mental health and reduced self-confidence or warped perceptions of one’s self can lead eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and attempts to commit suicide.

If your teen is suffering from these serious conditions, immediate intervention is warranted. You can access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via their online chat or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also seek guidance from your child’s primary care physician (PCP) or a therapist in your area.

Signs of Social Media Addiction in Your Teen

You likely already have concerns that your teen may be using social media too much if you’re reading this guide. While it’s not uncommon to use social media often throughout the day, problems develop when it interferes with other important parts of a teen’s life. Indications that your teen may be developing a social media addiction include:

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Using Social Media in Risky
Situations

Teenagers usually start driving around the age of 16. They’re unlikely to have developed the skills that more experienced drivers have, so they need to pay strict attention to the road when they’re in the driver’s seat.

If you notice that your teenager uses their smartphone to check social media while driving, they may have an addiction problem. Besides the fact that this is dangerous to themselves and everyone else on the road, holding and using your phone while driving is also illegal in some states.

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Negative Impact on Grades

While not all teenagers achieve straight A’s every semester, if you see signs that your teenager’s academic performance is declining, take action early.

Try to determine whether the changes are driven by too much online activity or if your child is simply having difficulty with a particular course. If you see a pattern of increased social media usage and a decreasing GPA, you’ll want to take action.

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Experiencing Conflicts in Relationships

If your teenager has problems in their relationships, it’s important to determine the cause. If the problems are between you and them, you’ll likely already know the reason. If you feel they’re neglecting family life due to their time on social media, you’ll need to take steps to resolve the issue.

Other relationship problems may develop between your teenager and other teens. While it’s normal for teenagers to argue with their friends occasionally, look out for situations where the argument is caused by online cyberbullying or rumormongering. In some cases, this can lead to a severe type of cyberbullying called cyberstalking.

These types of divisive relationship conflicts can be indicative of social media addiction. It’s also a sign that your teenager may need to pursue healthier relationships offline.

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Less Time Spent on “Real Life” Activities

It’s common for teenagers to be involved in extracurricular activities, such as sports, band, or clubs. These activities allow them to connect with other individuals their age who also enjoy the same special interests. These are pivotal opportunities for young people to make friends and learn to express themselves in the world.

If your child begins to express disinterest in participating in their normal extracurricular activities in favor of social media, it might be time to take a closer look at how much time they’re spending online.

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Being Uncomfortable When Unable to Use Social Media

If you suspect your teenager may have a social media addiction, ask them to stop using it for a few days and see how they react.

If they’re combative or angry when faced with going offline, they may have become too dependent on it. In this case, you’ll want to seek guidance for bringing their reliance on social media back down to a reasonable level.

How Social Media Affects the Developing Adolescent Brain

A study performed by UCLA on teenagers aged 13 to 18 found that the use of social media is highly tied to the reward circuitry of the brain. This area is particularly sensitive during adolescence.

During the study, researchers asked teens to view posts they had made on social media. Each time a photo received a high number of likes, the teen’s brain images lit up in the area containing the reward circuitry.

Another part of the same study involved teens viewing pictures with a high number of likes, an average number of likes, and just a few likes. The teens were less attracted to photos with fewer likes. They were more likely to pay attention to posts with a higher number of likes.

The study results indicated that peer influence plays a strong role in the developing brain of an adolescent. Interestingly, the main driver of liking a photo was the number of likes it already had, not the content of what was being posted.

This study shows the importance of parents knowing who their children are following on social media and making sure they’re positive role models.

What if my teen is addicted to social media?

The effects of social media addiction can be severe, especially if symptoms are allowed to manifest. While addiction may take time to develop, it can result in a myriad of problems. These can include any of the following:

• Mental health issues, including anxiety and
depression
• Dependency on social media for validation
• Low self-esteem
Disordered eating patterns
• Increased risk of suicide

If you see signs that your teen is developing an addiction to social media, it’s time to take action.

Talking to Your Teen About Problematic Social Media Use

When you see signs of social media addiction in your teenager, it’s important to talk to them about the problem. Set up some one-on-one time together in a setting they enjoy. For example, you could take them out to lunch or another activity.

Once settled in, direct the conversation to their social media usage. Express that you’re concerned and want to make sure they’re healthy. Expect pushback and be ready to tell them about the signs you’ve noticed, and invite them to open up to you. Questions you can ask include:

Do you feel you’re spending too much time on social media?

How do you feel when you see images of your friends or other connections online?

Is anyone putting you down on social media? In what way?

Do you communicate differently on social media versus in real life?

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This is a limited list, but you can consider all types of questions that might be pertinent to your teenager’s situation.

Try to get to the bottom of their feelings and reasons for using social media so much. Avoid accusations and ultimatums. The goal of the discussion is to get them to think about their social media usage and how it may be negatively impacting them.

Once they’ve had some time to consider your questions, they’ll be more likely to respond on their own. Don’t expect them to open up fully on the spot. You will likely need to revisit the conversation. Breaking an addiction is a process that begins with acknowledging the problem. It might take time to help your teen become aware of what’s going on.

Getting Treatment for an Addiction to
Social Media

If you feel that your teen is addicted to social media and shows no signs of cutting back, it’s time to seek treatment. Reach out to a local psychiatrist or therapist specializing in teenagers’ mental health issues. It’s important to find someone who’s familiar with the impact of social media addiction and knows the steps to take to combat the problem.

When you schedule the appointment, let your teenager know what it’s for. Encourage them to speak frankly with the therapist. In some cases, the therapist may ask you to join the session so you can provide further insight.

The important thing to remember is that getting your teen back to a healthy routine may take time. Have patience and be willing to stand firm but also remain compassionate as you set boundaries to support them with breaking this habit.

If you believe that your child or teen has been harmed by a social media addiction, contact the Social Media Victims Law Center to learn how we can help.