What is social media addiction?

A photo illustration of two hands chained to a cellphone showing social media apps
Are you addicted to social media? Here's what to know. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

The mental health crisis among young people in America is an emergency, and social media is playing a big role, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns in an op-ed published in the New York Times. In it, Murthy calls for Congress to require social media platforms to have a surgeon general's warning, much like that on tobacco packages, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.

In his op-ed, Murthy also says that a handful of young students he spoke to about mental health expressed concern about being addicted to social media and feeling unable to set limits for themselves.

Problematic use of social media has previously been highlighted as a risk to public health — and, more specifically, as a threat to the mental health of adolescents ages 13 to 17, 95% of whom use social media. Following a lawsuit filed in October 2023 against Facebook's and Instagram's parent company, Meta, the addictive nature of these platforms has been called into question.

Social media addiction is a phenomenon, according to the Cigna Group's 2023 Vitality in America study, that Gen Z-ers are acutely aware of. While only 44% of those surveyed believe they're addicted to technology, 67% feel that most other people their age are. And 40% wish they could spend less time on it altogether.

There may not be an official psychiatric diagnosis for social media addiction, notes Mari Radzik, a clinical psychologist for adolescents at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. But, she tells Yahoo Life, it's certainly true that people might have a hard time stopping their use of social media and find themselves "obsessed."

Recent findings from a Gallup survey show that U.S. teenagers spend an average of 4.8 hours daily on social media apps, including YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter). Meanwhile, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2019 noted that teens who use social media for more than three hours a day may be at heightened risk of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Red flags of too much social media use in adolescents, according to the American Psychological Association, include:

  • An inability to stop even when they want to

  • Social media use interfering with their daily routines

  • Going out of one’s way or lying to maintain social media use

  • Problems with schoolwork or relationships because of social media use

Dr. Stuart Lustig, a child psychiatrist and national medical executive for behavioral health at Cigna, tells Yahoo Life that Gen Z-ers themselves classify their usage as an "addiction" because it's something they do every day, despite having an awareness of its negative impact.

"They know it causes issues with self-esteem, self-image, comparisons to peers, bullying and more. Yet they rely on social media for information and connection to others," says Lustig.

For some kids, that might stem from the fact that they started using the apps so early, says Vikram R. Bhargava, assistant professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University and a former grade school teacher. He says he became interested in researching technology addiction when he noticed that students "as early as second grade had Facebook profiles and would report not being able to start their days without having checked their social media." Even when some students experienced cyberbullying on the very same platforms they relied on daily, he says, their use remained consistent.

Though addiction diagnoses generally rely on showing a huge impact on social life, academic life, family life and overall functioning, with adolescents and social media it can be trickier, says Radzik. "Young people are still going to school, interacting with their families," she notes. "It may not be optimal, but they’re certainly doing those things."

It's why Bhargava suggests that such problematic usage might be looked at on a spectrum rather than a binary of "yes, you're addicted, or you aren't."

"Any generation can demonstrate a reliance on social media," says Lustig. "The issue, however, is that Gen Z is struggling with mental health challenges to a greater extent than other generations, including feelings of loneliness and isolation, which social media can exacerbate."

It's why there's such a focus on young people right now — and because society tends to have greater concern with respect to children, Bhargava notes. However, he says, "It's a significant oversight for us to think that this is just an issue that uniquely bears on children and teens. Part of why these technologies are so effective is that they're able to tailor to whoever the user is."

He says the algorithms used by social media platforms are "adaptive," meaning they rely on user data to tweak the platform to an individual's preferences. This affects social media use among older generations too, although they might be more able to resist some of the negative impacts because of age, life experience and developed coping mechanisms.

The surgeon general has said that the findings aren't yet conclusive about the harm that social media might cause consumers. As more research is done, however, it's important that all users, and parents of users, are aware of the potential risks.

The advisory notes a number of actions that can be taken to mitigate those risks. Some of the most important, says Radzik, can be put in place right away by parents and include teaching young people to use critical thinking when engaging with content on social media, establishing rules and boundaries, logging out of applications so they're not as easy to access and modeling appropriate use of phones and social media. And the earlier you start any of it, the better, she says, stressing, "early intervention is really important."

This article was originally published on October 26, 2023, and has been updated.