Why Is Social Media Addictive?

Although many children and teens enjoy social media, these platforms can be highly addictive, causing changes in the brain that are similar to those caused by drug addiction. Evidence suggests that social media companies knowingly promoted their dangerous products without warning users of the risks. Product liability lawsuits are now being filed against social media companies to hold them accountable for the harm they have caused.

Many people enjoy using social media to connect with friends and family. Worldwide, 59 percent of the population uses social media, and the average person spends around two and a half hours per day on these sites.

Although it can be a useful and even enjoyable tool for some people, social media can be highly addictive, particularly for teenagers. The way that social media sites and apps are designed hooks into certain aspects of the brain’s reward system, and it can be very difficult for some people to stop using them.

A study performed in 2019 found that, among people ages 18 to 22, 40 percent reported feeling they were addicted to social media. Five percent reported that the statement “I am addicted to social media” described them completely.

Is social media addiction a medical condition?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), which is the primary source that mental health professionals use for diagnosing mental illnesses, does not list social media addiction, or even internet addiction, as a diagnosis.

Even though social media addiction isn’t a recognized medical disorder, treatment may still be necessary. Therapy, usually cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can be a useful way to treat this condition. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to get medical insurance to pay for treatment when the patient’s diagnosis isn’t officially recognized.

However, it’s common for those with social media addiction to have other conditions, such as depression or anxiety, which are officially recognized as mental illnesses. In fact, research has found a correlation between problematic social media use and symptoms of depression, and many experts are concerned that social media addiction can worsen or even cause depression.

The Dopamine Loop

To understand why social media is so addictive, consider what happens inside the brain when a person is using social media. There are changes in the levels of a brain chemical called dopamine. In general, dopamine is released in the brain in response to pleasure. People are highly motivated to seek out higher levels of dopamine and will tend to repeat behaviors that increase dopamine levels.

When a person uses social media, they experience multiple small bursts of dopamine. Each time one’s own post or photo is “liked” or commented on in a positive way, dopamine levels increase due to the social approval and attention from others. Dopamine also increases in response to novelty, and social media is engineered to provide a constant stream of new posts and videos. All of this leads to very high dopamine levels while using social media.

However, as soon as the person logs off social media, these dopamine bursts stop. This leads to negative feelings as dopamine levels in the brain drop. Few situations in life are able to generate as much dopamine as social media, so normal levels can start to feel too low. Users begin craving social media so they can raise their dopamine levels again. This is sometimes known as the Dopamine Loop.

Comparing Social Media Addiction to Gambling and Drug Addiction

In many ways, the behavior of people who are addicted to social media is similar to that of people who are addicted to other things, such as drugs or gambling. People with social media addiction may show:

  • Preoccupation with social media
  • A continual increase in use of social media
  • A negative emotional state when they can’t access social media
  • A temporary positive emotional state when they start using social media
  • Problems with relationships or work because of excessive social media use
  • Rapid return to high levels of social media use after a period of abstinence

Although the signs of social media addiction are similar to those of other addictions, there are features of social media that make it particularly conducive to addictive behavior.

  • Cost. Most social media sites are free, so there are no financial barriers to using them for excessive lengths of time.
  • Ease of access. Social media is widely available, and there’s almost no effort required to log in and start using it.
  • Entertainment value. Social media is designed to be entertaining to encourage people to use it for longer.
  • Social connection. As humans, we’re hardwired to seek connection with others. Social media takes advantage of this tendency.

The Effects of Social Media Addiction on the Brain

In people with social media addiction, the patterns of brain activation are similar to those in people with drug addictions. When a person is exposed to social media, there’s activation in certain brain regions related to reward and pleasure. This is similar to the patterns of activation created by the use of a drug such as cocaine.

Drug and alcohol addiction is known to result in certain changes in brain structure over time. A study published in Scientific Reports found that similar patterns of changes occur in people with social media addiction. Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to look at brain structure, researchers discovered alterations in certain brain regions that govern the management of behavior.

How Social Media Impairs Decision-Making

People with addictions to alcohol or drugs often show a pattern of risky decision-making, leading them to make dangerous choices that cause harm to themselves or others. They generally tend to choose short-term rewards, despite the long-term damage that these choices cause. Even though they may realize that their choices are risky, they simply can’t resist immediate gratification of their desire for the substance. People with social media addictions have been found to have similar behavioral patterns.

In a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, researchers evaluated the decision-making patterns of people with social media addiction by assessing their performance on a particular task in the laboratory. They found that people with social media addiction showed a pattern of risky decision-making with performance similar to that of people with drug or alcohol addiction. The researchers concluded, “This result further supports a parallel between individuals with problematic, excessive SNS (social networking site) use and individuals with substance use and behavioral addictive disorders.” In other words, at its core, social media addiction is the same as other types of addiction.

The Facebook Papers

Many people were shocked and alarmed by the release of the Facebook papers — a set of internal documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Haugen worked at the company for two years and grew increasingly uncomfortable with how Facebook was manipulating people in order to increase its profits.

She eventually left her job, but before she left, she copied thousands of pages of internal communications from within Facebook. She provided these in their entirety to the federal government, leading to a congressional investigation.

The Facebook papers demonstrate that the company (now known as Meta, which owns Instagram as well as Facebook) was aware of the damage that its products were causing, particularly to young people. For example, Facebook found that its product significantly increased the rate of suicidal thoughts and the symptoms of eating disorders among teen girls. Despite knowing about these risks, Facebook took no action to mitigate the harm of its products and continued to work to keep people addicted to them.

In Facebook’s 2020 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company essentially admitted that it has a financial incentive to make its product as addictive as possible. The report stated, “If we fail to retain existing users or add new users, or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.”

The company has an obvious incentive to keep people on Facebook for as long as possible because their attention is the product they’re selling to advertisers. If they chose to design Facebook in a way that would make it less engaging and less addictive, then their profits would likely decrease. They have a financial incentive to ensure that Facebook remains as addictive as possible.

What is the Online Safety Bill?

The public has become increasingly concerned about the damaging effects of social media, particularly on vulnerable children and teens. In the UK, legislators are taking action. The Online Safety Bill, introduced in Parliament in 2021, aims to reduce the harm caused by social media. It would impose a duty for social media companies to take actions to improve the safety of their products. They would be required to put safeguards in place to remove illegal content as well as content that’s legal but harmful, such as information related to suicide, violence, eating disorders, and other acts of self-harm.

Some people are understandably concerned about the potential effect of such a bill on free speech, and this is something that will need to be negotiated. Currently, the language in the Online Safety Bill is somewhat vague and needs to be clarified in order to make the bill successful. However, the need to address the harm caused by social media is pressing, and legislators continue to work to find ways of doing so.

Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies

The clear evidence that Facebook and other social media companies knew about the dangers of their products and continued to promote them has led to a growing number of lawsuits against Meta (Facebook & Instragram), TikTok, and Snapchat.

Many of these are product liability claims, which can be filed when a company continues to market a product that it knows is dangerous without acting to reduce the harm or clearly communicating it to users. Some of the claims allege that social media use directly led to harm to children, including suicides and accidental deaths.

Social media companies have attempted to shield themselves behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents them from being held liable for content posted by others. However, some plaintiffs are claiming that Facebook and other companies shouldn’t be able to hide behind this law because they have designed their products in a way they knew was unsafe and failed to communicate this to users.

The Justice Department is currently reviewing the law and its applications to address “the proliferation of illicit and harmful content online that leaves victims without any civil recourse.”

Corporations have a duty to ensure that their products are reasonably safe. If they know about potential harms, they must act to reduce these as much as possible. They must also clearly warn consumers about known risks and inform them about how to mitigate these. Social media corporations have failed in these duties, choosing to protect their astronomical profits by keeping people addicted to their products.

Those who have experienced significant harm due to the use of social media should be able to seek justice through a lawsuit. A financial settlement will not undo the harm to you and your family, but it can ease the burden.

The attorneys at Social Media Victims Law Center are ready to fight for you. If you believe your child has been harmed by their addiction to social media, contact us today for a free consultation.

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.

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Content Reviewed by:

Matthew P. Bergman

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