Social Media Addiction: What It Is and How It Impacts Teens

Social media addiction is the excessive or compulsive use of social media platforms. Numerous studies find that addiction to social media is similar to nicotine addiction and negatively impacts many aspects of the lives of teens and young adults.

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Excessive Internet use correlates with social media addiction; while that might seem more benign than drugs or gambling addiction, don’t be mistaken. Social media addiction can still have adverse, devastating long-term mental health effects, just like any other addiction. A 2017 study of adolescents published in Plos One reported that 4.5 percent of young adults suffered social media addiction. 

These same young adults also exhibited low self-esteem and high levels of depression. In another 2017 study, the number of participants who developed Facebook Addiction Disorder increased over a year. People with narcissistic personalities or other negative mental health variables were more likely to develop FAD.

The addictive effect of social media platforms, particularly among youth, is well established in the literature. In November 2021, the Wall Street Journal disclosed that Facebook’s own research identified 12% of its users engaging in compulsive use of social media, affecting their sleep, work, parenting, or relationships.

Research has also demonstrated severe psychological injury—including severe depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation—and self-harm resulting from excessive social media use in all age groups.

Legal Help for Teen Social Media Addiction

Is your child addicted to social media? An attorney can help you understand your legal options.

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Social Media, Sex, and Nicotine Equally Addictive

Although overuse of social media is not yet an official behavioral diagnosis, some studies are beginning to suggest this classification may soon happen. University of Chicago Booth School of Business research indicates that an individual’s urge to check their social media page “is one of the strongest temptations in modern society.” 

Study participants from age 18 to 85 received a mobile device and told researchers every 30 minutes whether they had an urge to check their social media pages. They also had to tell researchers if they had the urge to smoke, drink, or sleep. Researchers found that the desire to check social media was more irresistible than the urge to smoke or drink.

A separate study found that those who exhibit traits of Internet addiction may have a CHRNA4 gene. Those who are addicted to tobacco also have a CHRNA4 gene. Both studies suggest that like nicotine addiction, Internet or social media addiction may be disorders that require professional treatment to overcome.

Social Media Addiction and Substance Abuse

A University of Albany study discovered that excessive social media use is not only addictive but also can be associated with substance abuse disorder. Researcher Julia Hormes found that 10 percent of her research subjects experienced “disordered social networking use.” 

These same individuals were also more likely to report alcohol overuse and impulse control problems. The research suggests “that disordered online social networking may arise as part of a cluster of risk factors that increase susceptibility to… addictions,” Hormes wrote.

Social media addiction also has the same characteristics as substance abuse addictions. Two studies by Mark D. Griffiths, one in 2005 and another in 2013, found that six core components characterized addictive behavior. These are:

  • Salience
  • Mood Modification
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal Symptoms
  • Conflict
  • Relapse

For some people, social networking sites become the most obsessive activity they engage in, which leads to preoccupation (salience). Activities on the sites create pleasurable feelings, and increasing amounts of time are required to continue achieving the same satisfying effects. 

According to another Griffiths study, when these individuals stop using social media, they undergo withdrawal, which leads to relapse. Other researchers, including Daria J. Kuss, have classified social media overuse as an addiction when it results in: 

  • Neglect of personal life
  • Mental preoccupation
  • Escapism
  • Mood modifying experiences
  • Tolerance
  • Concealing the addictive behavior

"We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment
they're conducting on our children for profit."

Facebook Addiction Linked to Brain Reward and Gratification​

With more than 2.9 billion users globally, Facebook is the most widely used social media site, and some studies indicate that Facebook addiction might be a subtype of Internet addiction. Two basic social needs drive Facebook overuse. 

According to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, these two needs are the need to belong and self-presentation. This need to belong is associated with external demographic and cultural factors, while the need for self-presentation relates to internal psychological processes.

Facebook activity that creates self-exposure can increase dopamine, which, in turn, generates a desire to use Facebook more and more. This dopamine reward system is also at play in other types of addictions, according to a study in the journal Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health.

Contributing Factors to Social Media Addiction

According to a paper presented in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, several factors contribute to social networking addiction. These factors include a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), smartphone addiction, nomophobia, and pre-existing mental health problems.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is an individual’s fear that they will miss out on a pleasurable experience that others are having. Higher levels of FOMO correlate with greater Facebook engagement, the study says. FOMO also can predict problematic use of social networking.

Smartphone Addiction

Arguably, mobile phone addicts may be more addicted to their phones than alcoholics are to the bottle, the study says. Using social media apps is particularly popular with mobile phone users; for example, about 75 percent of Facebook users access the platform via their mobile phones.


Nomophobia and social media addiction also are linked. Nomophobia is an individual’s fear of being without their mobile phone. Inherently, nomophobia is a fear of being disconnected, and studies have linked it with problematic Internet use, the study says.

Pre-existing Mental Health Problems

Those with pre-existing mental health issues are often more likely to become addicted to social media. For example, a Texas University study shows that individuals who already exhibit signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder tend to gravitate to social media to relieve their anxiety, only to become more anxious.

TikTok is notoriously good at getting its users hooked on not only the app itself but also certain topics of content within the app through the use of its powerful algorithm.

Dangers of Teen Social Media Addiction

Social media addiction presents several dangers for teenagers. It exacerbates feelings of loneliness, and the ” likes ” system may make some teens feel judged. Teens tend to be highly sensitive about being accepted. 

According to a UNICEF article, a post that doesn’t receive enough “likes” can send a teen into a downward spiral. Browsing social media posts also can result in feelings of envy and dissatisfaction. Teens who are addicted to social media also may face higher incidences of cyberbullying, which, in turn, may lead to drug abuse or suicidal ideation.

Signs of Social Media Addiction in Teens

Concerned parents can learn the signs of social media addiction to recognize them in their teens potentially. According to Parentology, the symptoms are:

  • The desire for constant social media access
  • Oversharing
  • Ignoring real life
  • Becoming stressed about posts
  • Stalking others
  • Spending more than four hours on social media daily
  • Lack of understanding of potential “real-world” consequences
  • Awaking in the middle of the night to check social media
  • Difficulty conversing outside of social media
  • Exhibiting symptoms of ADHD
  • Inability to curb social media use
Signs of Social Media Addition in Teens Infographic

Limiting Teens’ Social Media Use to Prevent Addiction

Parents can have a crucial role in preventing addiction by limiting their teens’ use of social media. A 2020 study says, “Encouraging parents to be proactively involved in limiting children’s and teens’ use of smartphones and social media may be helpful, given that social media use appears to become problematic when it surpasses one to two hours daily.” 

The study suggests that while parental controls work well when reducing media use by children, open discussions are more effective with adolescents. Modeling responsible smartphone use also is a good tactic for parents who want their teen to use their smartphones responsibly. 

Responsible use also might include setting boundaries around phone use. According to Ecole Global, creating boundaries might consist of turning off social media platform notifications, deleting unnecessary social media apps, and creating a physical distance between the phone and the individual.

Parents can let their teens know that they will be monitoring their social media accounts for unacceptable behavior, checking them as often as once a week, the Mayo Clinic suggests. Examples of inappropriate behavior include gossiping, spreading rumors, cyberbullying, or doing anything to humiliate another or injure their reputation.

Parents also can encourage their teens to pursue a new hobby or interest. The time the teen devotes to the further pursuit will likely limit their time to use social media, Ecole Global says. Parents can encourage the teen to plan social connections in the real world. Face-to-face contact is particularly therapeutic for teens vulnerable to social anxiety disorder, the Mayo Clinic says.

Finally, parents should talk to teens about their social media habits and ask how social media use makes them feel. They also should remind them that images and other portrayals on social media often are unrealistic. Above all else, they should be compassionate in supporting their children.

If you believe your child has already been harmed by the effects of social media, please contact us for a free case evaluation.

Frequently Asked Questions

For individuals and children who have been

We only handle cases on a contingent fee basis. This means that we are paid a portion of any recovery obtained in the case and you do not owe us any attorneys’ fees if the lawsuit does not result in a recovery.

Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.

We are a law firm based near Seattle, WA comprised of lawyers who have spent their entire careers representing victims who have been harmed by dangerous products. We are also parents. Shocked and troubled by the recent revelations about the harm caused to teens and young adults by social media platforms, which powerful technology companies have designed to be highly addictive, Social Media Victims Law Center was launched specifically to help families and children who have suffered serious mental harm or exploitation through social media use to obtain justice.

Matthew Bergman
Content Reviewed by:

Matthew P. Bergman

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