Ask the Counsellor: Addicted to social media

UoN Counsellor Belinda Muldoon answers your questions.

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Q. I think I’m addicted to social media. What can I do?

Thank you for your question. Our love affair with social media is a phenomenon of life in the ‘online’ world. Social media (including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Yammer, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Bebo, etc) offers both the best and worst of human interactions. Social media has contributed to a greater sharing of political, environmental and social atrocities, may provide cheaper methods of connection between geographically distanced loved ones and can be a convenient way to connect people with information and support. Information about events and businesses is often only obtainable through social media – a kind of information umbilicus, without which we can sometimes feel deprived.

Is it the greatest tool for connection and camaraderie the world has ever seen? Or is it a dangerous time-suck, isolating us in bubbles of anxious voyeurism? Well, it’s both (Nichtern, 2012).

While social media is about connecting online, the online world may very much disconnect us from being present and attending to our needs, responsibilities, and relationships. This is particularly important if you find your social media proclivities are hijacking your study time. So let’s talk about how this happens. We all like to engage in activities that are rewarding and avoid activities that are unpleasant. When it comes to study, this unpleasantness may come in the form of sadness or worry over an assessment task. If an alternative, pleasant activity is available (such as cruising through the cloud on the YouTubes) we may find ourselves eagerly leaving unpleasant tasks behind.

In the context of social media, ‘likes’, ‘followers’, ‘comments’, ‘re-tweets’ ‘shares’ and ‘messages’ may all trigger the feel good sensations in the body which we experience when we feel wanted, loved, liked, socially accepted and included. So basically, our brain cues us to prolong any activities that support these feelings and avoid activities that promote unpleasant feelings. So when does our yearning for pleasantness become an addiction? If we use the Psychology Today definition, an addiction is any activity that, despite being enjoyable, interferes with other daily activities and responsibilities.

Ask yourself the following questions (these are not clinical indications of ‘addiction’, they are simply prompts to reflect on your relationship with social media):

  • Do I put off tasks that I need to do, in order to check my social media feed?
  • Have I ever been reluctant to put down my phone / tablet and pay attention to someone or to a task? (“Just five more minutes, then I’ll start that pesky assignment” he said, five hours ago!)
  • Do I ever feel nervous when reading a post about me or worry about what people think of something I have posted?
  • Do I ever find myself reaching compulsively for my phone or checking email, or a webpage without realising what I am doing?
  • Do I spend a lot of time in front of a ‘screen’ without really achieving what I need to get done?
  • Do I sometimes perceive comments (or no comments) as being personal insults or perceive a comment to be a truth rather than an opinion?

If you have responded yes to any of these questions, it may be time to consider a relationship change with social media. This is not to say that you need to break up and never see each other again, it is simply an invitation to set some limits on your levels of online social monitoring.

Perhaps you could try the following;

  • Pick a social media-free day each week, or have a social media-free month – if this is impossible for you to consider, a little bit of reality testing may be required, such as “will something disastrous happen if I don’t check Facebook?” If not, it’s okay to have a rest – if the answer to this question is ‘yes’ then I recommend bringing in emergency services (000) or Lifeline 13 11 14 for advice and assistance.
  • Use a website blocker (see below) to help you to disconnect.
  • Turn off ‘notifications’ on your phone or PC to stop constant social media distractions.
  • Ask yourself before you log in, how am I feeling? Am I using social media as a distraction for something that I am avoiding? Is there any anxiety feeding my behaviour?
  • Ask yourself: Is this activity helping me to grow emotionally, or giving me a sense of meaning in my life? If not, what sort of meaningful activities would I be doing if I had less screen time?
  • Turn off your PC / mobile at the same time each evening and try to avoid any online activity for one hour after you wake each morning.

I hope that this information has been useful. I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic or any other questions that you have.

Many thanks to the great folks at Yak Media for their contribution to socially conscious social media.

More information

References

Nichtern, E. (2012). “Mindful Social Networking.” Retrieved 7 August, 2014, from http://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-practice/mindfulness-and-awareness/mindful-social-networking.


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Belinda Muldoon is a Counsellor with the University’s Counselling Service. Do you have a question for Belinda? You can submit questions to be answered via: