Do you find yourself unconsciously opening up Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, or LinkedIn and mindlessly scrolling? Experts have long maintained that like nicotine, alcohol, and narcotics, social media too can be highly addictive.
Like many users worldwide, several studies have shown UAE residents are also victims of mild to severe social media addiction.
A study conducted by a team of students from the Canadian University Dubai showed that around 69.7 per cent of UAE students use social media for five hours or more daily. Anything above two hours is considered addictive, experts have said.
However, the subtle signs provide evidence of the early stages of addiction over the more obvious ones. David Golding, the Dubai-based founder of Sober Lifestyle Coaching LLC, listed out the many subtle signs residents need to watch out for.
How would you define social media addiction?
Social media addiction is a behavioural addiction characterised by being excessively concerned about social media, devoting too much time to its use, and having uncontrollable urges to log into social media. The impact on physical and personal wellbeing or its use significantly impacting other vital areas of life is when parents and adults need to take note.
"While checking the screentime on an iPhone would help you uncover how much time is spent, there are more subtle symptoms that might indicate a growing habituation," said Golding.
"Tiredness due to lack of sleep can often uncover night-time use, for example. The impact on self can be noticed as a combination of the following: physical pain (e.g., Whatsappitis), mood changes, increased tolerance to social media use and therefore increased usage, interpersonal problems such as increased conflict with others, withdrawal issues, and quickly reverting to the old patterns of usage after having a period of abstinence (relapse)," he explained.
A survey conducted in 2016 by the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) showed that 14.7 per cent of students spend between five to ten hours on social media each day, and 12.3 per cent more than ten hours.
A large percentage of 69.7 per cent said they were on social media between one to five hours daily, while 3.3 per cent said less than an hour. "Shockingly, 41 per cent of students said their social media habits had caused them to go without food or drink for a long time, and 56.5 per cent said they had tried to quit social media within the past 12 months but were unsuccessful.
Do heavy social media users tend to have underlying mental health disorders?
"There is a chicken and egg question here. Did the user already have an underlying condition and then develop a social media addiction as a 'habit' to cope with or escape feelings, or has the increased use of social media, negatively impacted the user's mental health?" asked Golding.
He explained that the 'jury' is still deliberating whether there is a direct correlation between social media use and general mental health symptoms.
"Some studies have shown that social media use may be tied to increased isolation, self-harming ideation, increased loneliness, social anxiety, and attention seeking online," he added.
Whilst it is hard to find studies that identify a direct correlation, what is clear is that heavy social media use puts a large percentage of the population at increased risk of feeling depressed, anxious, or worse.
Is it harder for teenagers?
According to the Status Of Mind, which surveyed almost 1,500 young people (aged 14-24) from across the UK, researchers found Instagram to have the most negative effect on young people's mental health.
Moreover, a study at the University of Pennsylvania found that high usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram increases feelings of depression and loneliness.
Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist, managing director and founder of LightHouse Arabia, said she refuses her teens from social media use. She said, "Whether we like it or not, our children are not just being raised by social media but brain-washed by it, and it is having an awful impact on their mental health and wellbeing."
She added, "For example, more recently, a Facebook whistleblower confirmed what I had intuitively known, which is that Instagram results in teen girls feeling worse about their bodies and that they blame the platform for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts."
While social media use comes with an entire litany of negatives, if used appropriately, it can be an incredible source of information if used properly.
Golding said, "One should note that overcoming an addiction is not straightforward and is rarely 'overcome' alone and without help. Getting into recovery for any addiction begins with acceptance of the fact that they are addicted."
He said professional help is often needed to deal with addictions.
"If someone is a heavy user and does not exhibit the hallmarks of addiction, then it can be possible to self-moderate and self-manage. Sometimes the act of attempting to self-moderate by an individual and finding that they can't highlight the troubling truth of real addictive behaviours," he added.
Is carpal tunnel syndrome related to social media addiction?
"There has been an increase worldwide in carpel tunnel syndrome (hands and wrists) due to typing too much on smartphones," said Golding.
"The increase in damage to the thumb muscle (tenosynovitis) is popularly known as 'Whatsappitis' and was first identified in the medical journal The Lancet in 2014," he added.
Problems with the neck muscles and ligaments due to poor posture are known as 'text neck' and lead to chronic pain. Excessive holding of the phone can also trigger tennis elbow in some by holding certain arm positions for extended periods.
"Developing physical ailments due to smartphone users should be seen as a significant warning of unhealthy behaviours and are not to be ignored," he said.
Here are some tips for recovering from social media addiction:
Awareness. This is critical for anyone who wants to change any behaviour. Actively monitoring your usage is the first step. It is aware of the time spent and its impact on your life. This requires lots of honesty, and writing a daily journal helps.
Turn off notifications. This might help more than you imagine. If you are distracted by the 'ding' of a new alert, this is akin to Pavlov's dog, who salivated at the bell's ring.
Limit screen time. Allow yourself a managed amount of time daily. If that is hard to do, turn off the phone and put it away for a while. Please make this a routine to make it reliable over time.
Replace. Getting a new hobby or even going for a walk. Breaking Bad (habits) is a great idea. Learn to 'reward' yourself with other positive things. Beware of cross-addiction if you have a propensity to become addicted to things quickly.
Do 'in person' things. Meet up with friends in person and share time with others. This stimulates oxytocin in the brain, which is the 'hug hormone and delivers the dopamine hit that is craved.
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