How can we use psychology principles to address social media addiction?

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Teenagers spend seven hours per day in front of a device (CNN). Dr. Melissa G. Hunt, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted research that links social media overuse to feelings of depression (Journal of Social and Critical Psychology). In Hunt’s study, some participants reduced their social media use to 10 minutes per day, while others maintained their level of social media use. Those who reduced their usual social media use felt happier and more connected to others. Given this research, it should come as no surprise that a 2017 survey found that starting in 2012, the year cell phones became popular among teens, rates of depression and suicide both increased (NPR). Today, approximately 20% of high school students suffer from a mental health problem (Teen Mental Health.org). Given how commonplace smartphones are and the data on the effects of technology on mental health, there is no doubt that excessive social media use contributes to this alarming statistic.

 

A short documentary on the problems with social media.

In our class, Psychology of Social Change, we researched the psychological reasons about why students overuse social media. One reason we found is because cell phone usage can become a habit. According to psychologist Wendy Wood, habits are “learned associations between responses and features of performance contexts (locations, preceding actions, etc). Once habits have formed, perception of the context cue brings the response to mind” (USC). Habits have three aspects. The first aspect, mentioned by Wood, is the cue, a signal to the brain caused by a sense (a smell, sound, etc) or caused by feelings of stress or anger. Many students’ cue to check social media could be something as simple as sitting down on the bus or waiting in the lunch line. The second aspect of a habit is the routine. In the case of social media, the routine is as simple as someone taking out their phone and checking social media for notifications. The third component of habits is the reward. In regards to social media, the reward is a dopamine hit that is caused by seeing that someone liked a post or when someone “friends” us.

Another psychological reason students spend time on social media is because it can be addicting. Addiction means that someone has “a strong inclination to do, use or indulge something repeatedly” (Merriam-Webster). Just like drugs or alcohol, social media use can result in a release of dopamine by the body (Harvard). If our body has not gotten the usual dopamine hit, it craves the dopamine, leading students to have a strong inclination to get back on social media in order to indulge this craving. This leads many to desire that same feeling. Social media’s addictiveness poses a large problem for people of all ages, but specifically high school students amidst a pandemic, during which 63% of parents reported that their children have been using social media more since the pandemic began (Chicago Children’s Hospital). So, the more time we spend on our phones and social media, the more we crave dopamine when away from our devices. Accordingly, the more time we spend away from social media, the more we desire that dopamine hit. 

 

How can we address the problem using psychological principles?

 

One way to help students break a habit is by adding friction to the repeat behavior. Friction causes people to consider the effects of their behavior and thus makes the behavior less automatic. Psychologists David Neal and Wendy Wood did a study to find a way to break the habit of eating popcorn while in a movie theater. They created two groups; in one, the people ate popcorn like normal, and in the second group, people were forced to eat with their non-dominant hand. The people eating with their non-dominant hand ate a significantly smaller amount of popcorn. In connection to social media, there are apps—like Moment—that can be used which set timers that send notifications after someone has been using social media for a specified period of time. Likewise, there are also apps that make it take more time to open up an app. Eating popcorn with their non-dominant hand made some participants contemplate their decisions and it also interrupted the automaticity of the habit. So, when social media apps beep, or the app takes a long time to load, people are compelled to think about what they are doing and then decide to choose an alternate behavior.

Another way to help people break a habit is by using a commitment device, which are plans that eliminate future decisions. That way, people cannot decide later to ignore their goals. For this example, someone can download an app—like Flipd or Freedom—that locks social media apps for a given time, making it impossible for a person to access social media later. The multiple apps previously mentioned are key in making this commitment device work.

A third way to break a habit is based on the psychological idea of implementation intentions, which are if/then plans. By setting a plan, we are more likely to actually follow our goals. So, if students create an implementation intention in regard to social media—for example, if a student has a chance to pull out their phone, then they will then decide not to use it. Even though this seems incredibly simple, it will lead students to limit their usage because it sets a goal. 

As mentioned previously, social media can become an addiction just like certain drugs or alcohol. One way that alcoholics work to beat their addiction is through attaining social support from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. These meetings give alcoholics a support group in their quest for sobriety. Likewise, social support—be it through parents, friends, or other adults—is key to aiding students in breaking their social media addiction.

Our Solution

  1. We suggest that one week, during advisory, we focus on educating students on the harms of social media and encourage students to utilize different apps that add friction to social media use.                         
  2. Convincing students to download the previously mentioned apps, which are also examples of commitment devices, should aid students in limiting their social media usage. For example, an alcoholic might take a drug that makes them sick if they drink alcohol (Harvard). In our case, if someone sets a time limit now, they will be more likely to stick to it in the future.                                                                                         
  3. Lastly, as mentioned earlier, social support is key to breaking an addiction. So, in advisory, the week after this program is implemented, the group should reconvene and discuss how using the apps went. This social support is necessary to help students break their addiction to social media.

Questions for you:

  1. What are some effective ways you have used to curb your social media usage?                                                                                                                      
  2. Do you have any experience using these apps? If so, do you find them helpful?

Works Cited

20 Comments

20 comments

  1. I enjoyed this present very much because this is a real world issue today. You covered good information for me to understand more about the topic and reasons why social media is affecting teenagers mental health. I think you have a great range of pictures that relate back to your beautiful question very nicely. I also think the solutions you provided are very realistic for teenagers to be able to do in their everyday life to help or lower this idea of addiction to social media. I think you guys did a really great job!!

    1. Thanks so much Ellison!!

  2. Your project was fantastic! This topic needs to be talked about more because it affects almost every teenager in America, and your solutions would be very helpful to the masses. I love the way you incorporated video and pictures throughout your site and your sources were also very credible which is always a plus. To answer your questions, I try to limit my social media by taking the apps off of my homepage so that whenever I look at my phone the social media apps do not pop up. I also try to limit my screen time so that I can be more efficient with my school work. The apps you listed look very helpful and I look forward to trying them out! Great job on your project, and I hope this message can be spread because it is very important!

    1. Hi Michael, I’m so glad you found our solution to this problem interesting!

  3. I really like your project and how relevant it is! Most people overlook the impact of which social media has on our lives and how addicting it is. Your solution to add friction to the habit of checking social media and a commitment device would benefit many others. I liked how you talked about the habit of checking social media. I found that very interesting and eye-opening. I hear a lot about corporation’s actions to make social media addiction through the algorithms put in place, but not really the psychology principles that are woven into it. To answer your questions, I deleted all social media except YouTube but to control the time I spend on that I removed it from my phone and only use it on my laptop. I have tried using an extension that blocks social media, similar to what the apps do, and it’s helped in times where I need to get off social media and be productive, take a break or just live as simple as that may sound. I look forward to trying out the strategies you suggested. Great job and good luck!

    1. Thanks Diya! The psychology behind social media was really interesting to research. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. I loved our project. I normally have a hard time reading about social media being an issue because while I agree, there isn’t often a clearly defined solution. This normally gives me more stress because I know my social media consumption is unhealthy but I don’t know how to stop without deleting the apps, which is often not a great solution. I’m really glad you gave clear goals and targets for solving this problem!

    1. Hi Katie! We also thought the apps seemed to be a good middle ground between no social media and overusing it. I’m so glad you enjoyed our research!

  5. I really enjoyed reading through your project! Social media is an extremely relevant topic in today’s world and any effort to curb the negative effects of social media use is wonderful. your presentation was well researched and presented in such an aesthetically pleasing way, the use of multimedia (videos, pictures, words, etc.) really helped to be engaging. I also loved your solutions to this problem. Commitment devices and education about the harm of social media are very doable ways to help curb social media usage and overall addiction. Great job!

    1. Thanks for your encouraging feedback Marley!

  6. Your project is very relatable and necessary. Looking around the world today, everyone is glued to social media. It is truly frightening how much time we spend mindlessly scrolling. I love the way you all synthesized this issue of social media addicition and the corresponding mental health issues!

    1. Hi Charles—Yeah, through our research, we found that social media overuse and mental health issues are really interconnected problems. I’m glad you enjoyed our page!

  7. I really enjoyed your project and learning more about how social media affects our health! The topic is always one that I had heard of, but I had never had it explained to me in such a simple way which was really helpful in fully understanding the material you talked about.

    1. I’m so glad that you found our page to be educational, Emily. Thanks for your positive feedback!

  8. Hey Jacob,

    I really enjoyed reading your project and definitely think the issue is very pertinent to our society.

    What are some effective ways you have used to curb your social media usage?
    My relationship with technology has definitely had its ups and downs. There are some days where I can spend the whole day scrolling through tik tok or snapping friends while others I don’t even bother finding my phone. From my personal experience, I found the best way to prevent social media usage is to not use it at all. For me, social media is too addicting, and this is due to the way they’re designed (to be an infinite loop of content). Because I know myself, I decided to delete my social media a few months back. I found my decision to be incredibly effective and it helped me stop social media usage all together.

    Do you have any experience using these apps? If so, do you find them helpful?
    When it comes to my experience using apps to prevent social media usage, I’ve used apps similar to Moment and not to Flipd or Freedom. My experience with apps similar to Moment aren’t positive. In my opinion, they don’t really work as it’s really easy to ignore the screen time notification. However, I think Flipd or Freedom could definitely be a great way to curb social media usage as it’s impossible to override the application (I may even test it out in the near future).

    1. Hi Pierre,

      Thanks for the kind feedback! Flipd and Freedom are definitely stronger commitment devices than Moment. Glad you found our page interesting!

  9. Hi Jacob, I never really understood how social media impacted our mental health until seeing your project. I find the topic is very relevant, given how many people are addicted to social media, children especially. Finding the mental effects of this addiction is important to try to find ways to remedy the problem.

    1. Hi Frank—I’m glad you enjoyed our project. This is definitely a problem for many teenagers and we are hopeful that our proposal can be part of a solution!

  10. I loved this!! As a 17 year old girl living in 2021, i spend majority of my time on social media, whether it’s scrolling on tiktok or snapchat. I loved this project and it helped me see something in me!

    1. Thanks for the amazing feedback, Sarah!

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