Social media addiction is damaging our mental health

Can you imagine life without social media?

As a young woman with a number of social media accounts, this is a question I struggle to answer. Because for ‘generation Z’ or millennials as they are otherwise known, this kind of mediated communication is something we can barely remember being without. Born into a technological revolution full of hashtags, selfies and likes, we are the first generation to grow up with the internet as part of our everyday lives. Generation Z is the first generation that is always ‘on’; the generation that has the world at their fingertips. And as data shows, the generation that is experiencing mental health problems at a rate like no other generation before us.

Over the past 25 years anxiety among teenagers has increased by terrifying 70 per cent. The number of young people admitted to A&E departments with a psychiatric illness has more than doubled since 2009. And in the past three years, hospital admissions for teenagers with eating disorders have risen at an alarming rate. At the same time, social media use among 16-24’s is higher than any other age group.

A coincidence? Simon Sinek, suggests not. In his interview on the show Inside Quest, Sinek discusses what he terms the “Millennial Question”. He argues that as a generation, millennials are becoming addicted to social media.

He explains that the reason behind this is simple,  social media makes us feel good. It’s in the science. Because with every ‘like’, ‘favourite’ and ‘comment’ our brain releases a neurochemical called dopamine. That’s why we meticulously count the likes. It’s why, we scroll back and forth on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds. And it’s why we continue to come back for more some 20-30 times a day.

A study by Harvard University showed that social media usage stimulates the same part of the brain as addictive substances. So that little buzz of happiness we get when someone likes our photo is the same feeling we get when we smoke, when we drink and when we gamble. And just like when we engage in these activities, it’s not the feeling we get when we’re doing them that’s unpleasant, it’s the feeling of going without them that makes us so anxious. As a result, they are highly, highly addictive.

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Comparing yourself to images on social media can make you depressed (Photo source: http://bit.ly/2peIdG0)

Dopamine has a numbing effect. It makes us feel happy even when we’re unhappy. In a similar way that a drug addict may turn to heroin to help them cope with stress and anxiety, we turn to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In this highly filtered world, rewards in the form of likes are handed out only to those who are the funniest, look the best and say the most interesting things. These representations aren’t authentic but rather are the fabricated end result of a longwinded process of digital manipulation that has produced a measure of the ‘perfect’ life. It is no wonder therefore that people who compare themselves to the images on social media are more likely to be depressed than anyone else.

For a generation of young people trying to find their identity, this has created an extremely difficult world to grow up in. By turning to applications as a coping mechanism when things go wrong, we are neglecting the people, the real people with an unfiltered smile and imperfect skin, who can give us the love, empathy and compassion we really need.

Now more than ever, it is time for us to live in the present. To switch off from the online world and value the only thing we truly have. Generation Z needs to recognise there are some things an app can’t do. So it’s time for us to turn off our phones and embrace what’s around us in the offline world. Live for the moment, make time for our friends and stop measuring our success by likes. It will only continue to make us miserable.

Header image licensed for reuse at http://bit.ly/2pPolNu

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