Is Instagram addiction real? I quit to find out

Is social media addiction real? (Photo: Getty Images)
Is social media addiction real? (Photo: Getty Images)

Counting social media as an addiction might sound extreme — heavy use doesn’t typically bring the kind of obvious symptoms we’re used to seeing with drugs, alcohol, gambling, or other vices. Still, a recent study found that more people wanted to quit social media than smoking as their 2018 New Year’s resolution. So what gives?

When I joined Instagram in 2011, I used it as a way to privately share personal photos with no more than a couple of hundred friends and family members. But as the network evolved and became more popular — and once marketers understood the power of leveraging it to interact directly with consumers — the feel of it, as well as my own use, changed.

Instead of posting photos of things I enjoyed looking at, I began to post what I saw did well on other accounts: my outfits, retouched selfies, “unboxing” stories of gifts I’d received from PR agencies and designers. I “did it for the ’gram,” a common refrain for Instagram’s most fervent users who post just for the sake of it. Over time, I’d gained thousands more followers and wondered: Could I become an influencer myself? People were seemingly interested in me, and that kind of popularity — shallow as it may be — was enticing.

Still, something about it gnawed at me: Authenticity on Instagram seemed scarce. Discerning between advertisements and people’s real experiences was impossible in some cases. And the media — through which this writer is complicit — fed into all of this. Lifestyle publications like Vogue were posting stories regularly to the tune of “The Instagram Rules: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Boring.” Even business outlets wised up to the marketing-influencer micro-economy: “What Happens When You Reach a Million Instagram Followers: The coveted ‘M’ can bring influencer status and lucrative marketing deals,” wrote the Wall Street Journal; “Confessions of an Instagram Influencer” appeared on Bloomberg.

Instagram wasn’t just about sharing your life anymore; it was about selling it. Still, I scrolled and posted and liked and watched.

Eventually using Instagram began to feel like feeding an insatiable beast. Matching the idiomatic benchmark of keeping up with the Joneses had mutated into a toxic poison, having permeated my psyche before I even realized my core value systems had become muddled, if not altogether lost.

And so, on Nov. 14, after more than six years of acclimating to the habit, I unceremoniously disabled my account. And, for good measure, I deleted the Facebook (Instagram’s parent company), Twitter, and Snapchat apps from my phone too.

Disabling my Instagram account is in no way novel and certainly not heroic. Every few months, a different celebrity announces his or her own social media hiatus: Kendall Jenner, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna. Some say it just takes up too much of their time; others say they need breaks from the negativity swirling around the comment sections. Most of the time, those who leave wind up coming back.

Now, after two months, I have no intention of rejoining the platform. But living alone in a city of 8 million people with no social media linking me to my friends’ every move, in the beginning, admittedly made the isolation in social Siberia feel sharp. After a while, friends noticed and asked: Where did my profile go? Did something traumatic happen? How were they supposed to get updates about my life? It seemed unconscionable to many of them that I would go off the grid, like some kind of nihilistic hiker who’d haphazardly thrown her carabiner out of a window before a dangerous climb.

I wondered if I’d overreacted by going totally off-grid. Was Instagramming actually an “addiction,” anyway? Or had it simply been a reflection of my own lack of self-control?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry,” adding that “addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

Admittedly, the likes were rewarding, and I craved more. My relationships were hollower than ever. Still, I wondered, was it all in my head?

Not according to the behavioral psychologists, neurologists, and even the people who were early developers of social behemoths like Facebook, who are now sounding the alarm on social media. Time went so far as to say Instagram is “the worst social media platform for mental health.”

That’s probably because the most popular social media platforms (Instagram included) are designed to exploit your psyche and hook you, according to the software developers responsible for building them. A “technique we can use is to create a memorable experience for the user by offering user on-boarding, positive surprises and creating curiosity for the user to proceed forward in the process of the task,” according to UX Planet, a blog where software developers can learn about various aspects of the user experience.

Some of the reported long-term effects of excessive social media use include depression and anxiety and difficulty sleeping, though some researchers argue there are plenty of confounding factors that lead to those conditions, not social media use in and of itself.

In November, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive who now runs a venture capital firm, explained to an audience at the Stanford Graduate School of Business that in the earliest days of the social network, it wasn’t difficult to prophesy a world in which social media would become a tool for destruction rather than progress.

“I feel tremendous guilt; I think we all knew in the back of our minds even though we feigned this whole line of like, there aren’t any really bad long-term consequences, I think in the back, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen … the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we created are destroying how society works,” Palihapitiya said.

Palihapitiya, who says he limits his own social media use to the bare minimum because he “innately didn’t want to get programmed,” continued: “We conflate [likes] with value, but what it is is fake, brittle popularity that is short-term, that leaves you — and admit it — even more vacant and empty than before you did. It forces you into this vicious cycle where you’re like, ‘What’s the next thing I need to do now? Because I need it.”

It’s as if Palihapitiya had read my mind. And Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, confirmed much of what Palihapitiya said: Social media companies excel at “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” Parker said during an Axios media event in November.

While Instagram declined to comment for this story, behavioral psychologists have confirmed what those early social media pioneers have long understood to be true — despite the latest Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), used by mental-health professionals for diagnoses, not including social media as an actual addiction (the process of submitting proposals for changes to the DSM is underway, but it’s too early to say whether social media addiction will be included in updated versions, according to the APA).

But the likes you receive on social media do release “happy chemicals” in our brain. Push alerts increase your heart rate, and leaving them unchecked creates stress, says Larry Rosen, a behavioral psychologist who studies how technology affects behavior, and the author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, which he co-authored with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley.

“I always tell people there’s this continuum that people find themselves on at various times,” Rosen tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “On one end of it is pleasure, where dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with pleasurable systems, are released. On the other end is anxiety, where cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine are released. Within a minute, you can find yourself on either end of that continuum.”

Aside from the emotional responses social media elicits, Rosen says that there are potential physiological side effects of using technology. Staring at a screen before bed makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep, which leads to a never-ending list of other medical problems, and the anxiety that social media can create in a person is a “double whammy” when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, because you’re interfering with how your brain enters its REM cycle (the part of sleep that leaves you feeling refreshed when you wake up).

“Having those anxiety-laden chemicals in your system constantly is not good,” Rosen said. “We always have a bit of stimulating chemicals in our system, which keeps us from falling asleep, but having them in larger quantities on and off again is harmful.”

To be sure, social media is not without its benefits. Voices historically forced into the margins of society are elevated through platforms where messages are controlled from a bottom-up level, bypassing social gatekeepers; hashtags raise awareness for causes and, in some cases, effect social and political change.

But like any substance, not everyone is able to handle a responsible dosage. If you believe that deleting your profiles will improve your mental health, consider a break. I did, and I haven’t regretted it once — even though Rosen does point out that most people aren’t ready to quit completely.

If you’re ready to dip your toe in, know that being mindful of your use is paramount, so delete apps where you can (without necessarily deleting accounts), and turn off push notifications that prompt you to open an app when you otherwise wouldn’t. Move your remaining apps to folders within your smartphone so you’re creating extra steps to check apps. And when you do open your apps, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Mindfulness, Rosen explains, is key.

“In itself, it’s not a problem to use social media, but it is a problem to use it mindlessly,” he says. “[A company’s] goal is to keep you on its platform, but you have to get there first. And don’t be mistaken — they’re excellent at keeping you.”

Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, I’d dolled myself up and gone to a party with a few close friends in my hometown, much like I do every year. As the clock ticked closer to midnight, I noticed the people around me eager, thumbs at the ready to Instagram the moment the year ended, to capture the confetti falling, glasses clinking, couples kissing. Everyone was ready to document some kind of symbolic renewal, for posterity or otherwise.

I stood there with only a glass of champagne in hand. My phone was tucked away in my purse. I was already starting 2018 fresh.

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