Social media has become so much a part of our culture that most people can hardly imagine life without sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. According to the latest Pew Research Center report on Internet and Technology, the number of Americans who use social media on a regular basis went from 5% in 2005 to 69% in 2018. Social networks can help connect people for personal growth and share news and entertainment. Emotionally mature adults learn to develop a healthy balance between interaction with online communities and the offline world, but what about teens?
Are young people equipped to navigate a world where increasingly complex algorithms are designed to keep them clicking? Recent studies show that many teens check their social media more than 100 times a day. For some young people, the use of social media is so extreme it is negatively impacting their lives. Their relationships, academics, mental and physical health are suffering—they’re addicted.
Help is Available
Dr. Jeff Nalin, Clinical Psychologist and founder of Paradigm Treatment Centers, which has locations in Malibu and San Francisco, California, has developed a unique program that specifically addresses different types of Internet addiction in teens. Dr. Nalin has spoken on the topic of social media addiction on CBS News, Larry King and KQED Radio and has appeared as an adolescent addiction expert on CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He explains that, “Some young people are using the Internet the same way they would use substances, to cork a volcano of emotions that is brewing and rumbling inside…” For these kids, the use of social networking and online gaming sites can be so extreme that it begins to take over their lives. Eventually, the volcano may erupt in a behavioral health disaster.
Dr. Nalin, who has more than 20 years of experience in treating young people struggling with substance abuse, mental health disorders and behavioral addictions, says the phenomenon of compulsive Internet use disorder has become much more prevalent in recent years. This has led to the development of specialized treatment. Both Paradigm Treatment Centers now offer specific programs for cell phone addiction, online gaming addiction and social media addiction.
For today’s young people, social media use often begins early in adolescence and continues to increase into young adulthood. This means normal life events and developmental milestones for teens—like navigating friendships, adjusting to their changing bodies and exploring sexuality—are impacted, and sometimes interrupted, by the culture of constant digital interaction.
Studies show that the way a person’s brain reacts to Internet use can be similar to the way one with a substance use disorder reacts to stimulation from drugs. The same dopamine spike that addicts experience can also happen to those who compulsively use the Internet. Similarly, a tolerance builds for those who regularly rely on social media “likes” to make them feel good, so it takes more and more time to achieve the feelings of euphoria and satisfaction the user initially experienced. And when the devices are taken away, just like an addict who is suddenly deprived of drugs, withdrawal symptoms can occur.
Headed for Trouble
Internet addiction has not yet achieved the status of a formal psychiatric diagnosis, but there is a consensus in the behavioral health community that compulsive Internet abuse can lead to a true disorder. Experts have also found a correlation between increased social media usage and depression and anxiety, especially in teens. Adolescence is a time of rapid change and confusing feelings and often kids will push boundaries and test limits. These behaviors are normal—up to a point.
The danger is that something that begins as an experimentation or coping mechanism can lead to serious behavioral health issues. Like any addiction, those who are misusing the Internet will see other areas of life begin to suffer. Teens who start spending most of their time alone online instead of interacting with peers or family may be exacerbating their sense of isolation and headed for a major depression or a suicide attempt.
It’s a parent’s job to keep their children safe. It’s important that kids are allowed to explore the world around them within age appropriate parameters. In the digital age, this means keeping track of the amount of time kids spend online, what they’re doing, who they’re talking to and—most importantly—how they are applying what they learn online to their world. If a teen’s Internet use is out of control, programs like the ones offered at Paradigm Treatment Centers can help the entire family reboot.
Social media addiction treatment at Paradigm Treatment Centers begins with a reduction in the amount of time the teen spends online. This will vary based on the individual’s situation, but the goal is to cut out the distractions of social media to encourage the teen to learn how to engage with the world around them in a positive way. Some examples of this include music therapy to express emotions and sound healing sessions to induce deep relaxation.
While reducing the amount of time spent online and increasing therapeutic experiences, therapists work closely with clients to examine underlying issues. Usually, teens that compulsively seek attention and distractions on the Internet make meaningful connections between their triggers, actions and consequences. When issues surface, it’s not uncommon for therapy to address substance abuse or mood disorders as part of treatment for social media addiction.
Social media is here to stay and that means learning appropriate boundaries and moderation in the digital space is part of modern life. But nobody has to figure this out alone. If your teen is struggling with compulsive Internet use or other behavioral health issues, Dr. Nalin and the treatment teams at Paradigm Treatment Centers can help.