Social studies

New research underscores the addictive nature of online networking

Cory Hunt browses Facebook while relaxing on the stoop of his home in Chico.

Cory Hunt browses Facebook while relaxing on the stoop of his home in Chico.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Social media can be a powerful way to connect with people. Just ask Cory Hunt.

He’s often found himself wrapped up in online conversations about complex issues. When he is able to find common ground, “there’s nothing like it, that is such powerful medicine to me,” he told the CN&R.

“I’ve personally been able to connect with people who haven’t been able to connect with someone like myself, a person of color,” Hunt continued. “With the safety of having the distance of the screen, interacting with people who have troubling ideas and coming out on the other side—where they’re people I consider friends today—I think that’s the powerful side of it.”

He knows that’s not always the case, however. Many of his friends have told him they’ve had to take a break from social media because it has become too negative of a space for them.

What Hunt has noticed compares to what local mental health professionals have seen when it comes to social media. It can be an incredibly valuable tool when it comes to maintaining relationships and making connections, for example. But it also can be used to avoid problems, take people away from more rewarding activities or exacerbate feelings of isolation, jealousy, anxiety and depression.

Approximately 88 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 use social media, according to the Pew Research Center. An overwhelming majority (77 percent) of those ages 30 to 49 use social media as well.

Its prevalence has led to dozens of studies analyzing the role social media plays in humans’ lives—two were published earlier this month.

One at Texas State University surveyed 504 millennials who regularly use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or Snapchat. Researchers there discovered those who had major depressive disorder showed more negative social media behaviors, scoring higher on a “social media addiction scale.” They also were more likely to compare themselves to others better off than they were or feel bothered by unflattering photos of themselves.

In another study, conducted by Michigan State University, 71 participants took a survey that measured their psychological dependence on Facebook. Ultimately, researchers found the most excessive social media users exhibited the same deficiency in decision-making as gamblers and drug addicts.

The reason people use social media is important when it comes to mental health, according to Dr. Joel Minden, a Chico psychologist. He specializes in cognitive behavior therapy for people struggling with anxiety, depression or relationship issues.

People with social anxiety, for example, often find that online interactions aren’t always fulfilling and do not give them an opportunity to work on their social effectiveness. In those cases, it can be really detrimental when people rely too heavily on social media to observe and connect with others.

“Social media can exacerbate or contribute to problems with anxiety and depression if people use [it] as a way to avoid the activities they might consider pleasurable or meaningful because they’re too uncomfortable to take those risks,” he said. “Sometimes that can really contribute to a sense of isolation … loneliness and depression, and might make symptoms worse.”

Emotional stress also can occur when people experience FOMO, or fear of missing out, when they see their friends engaged in activities and feel excluded, Minden said.

This also can happen when they compare their lives to others who appear to be happier, healthier and more successful, and feel they cannot measure up. Chico State counselor Stephanie Chervinko told the CN&R that, even if people know that “I’m comparing my blooper reel to everybody’s highlight reel,” their self-esteem still can take a hit.

Chervinko has worked with students, for example, who have had difficulty adjusting to college life. When they get on social media and see their friends appearing to have “the time of their life” at their universities, “that can contribute or add to these feelings of, ‘There’s something wrong with me that I’m not having a better experience.’”

So, what can be done?

Moderation is key, according to Scott Kennelly, assistant director for Butte County Behavioral Health. The more screen time, the more people—particularly young people—can be influenced by what they see, and that can “significantly impact someone and create more depression and anxiety.”

He added: “The biggest impact is on kids’ self-esteem and mental health, if they believe too much of what they see on the internet or social media and they take feedback from others—particularly negative feedback—to heart.”

Chervinko encourages people to explore what it is they like about social media use, and what isn’t really working for them—“increasing mindfulness and awareness and intentionality” around its use. Sometimes creating a schedule that dictates when to log on, and for how long, can help.

Taking a break is sometimes the best option, Minden said.

He likes to advocate for small changes that are meaningful and achievable. If social media is interfering with face-to-face contact with friends, for example, Minden encourages people to increase their own accountability: form a study group, meet up with a friend once a week for lunch, make a commitment and stick to it. Instead of scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, plan to devote some of that time to exercising, painting or creating music.

Hunt, who creates music and poetry under the name Himp C, said the “addictive nature” of social media is the hardest part for him.

“I look up and I’m like, Man, I just burned an hour I could be jammin’,” he said. He tries to be mindful of that, and not get sucked into things he doesn’t enjoy.

“It’s always important to think about, What would I like to be doing instead?” Minden added, “and figure out a way to make that happen.”