A social media addiction is like binge eating. Here's how to find the right diet.

Unlike alcohol, drugs and smoking, which we can live without, screens have so infused our society that total abstinence isn't an option for most of us.
Image: Woman looking at phone
For those who need to use social media for work, an addiction can't be handled by the most effective means of ending dependencies — going cold turkey.Elizabeth Fernandez / Getty Images
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By Maggie Mulqueen, psychologist

It's easy to criticize everyone else's use of social media: the unwanted photo flash for Instagram posts, the interruption of a deep conversation by the blink of Twitter. We admonish people to get off screens and put phones away — while adding more features to our own online lives.

Perhaps that's because it's easier to tell others what to do than to curb our own behavior. Social media operates on our physiology in a way that's similar to other addictive behaviors. While there's a growing awareness of the danger of social media addiction, our understanding of what it takes for people to actually change their behavior is less well documented.

Supersize portions of screen time are becoming normalized, with dire results. We talk about binge-watching shows as if there is no harm in it, when in fact binge behavior of any sort is unhealthy.

Complicating any effort to curb an addiction to social media is that, unlike alcohol, drugs, smoking, sex and gambling, which we can live without, screens have so infused our society that total abstinence isn't an option for most of us. In fact, there is a growing subset of people who are required to have active presences online as part of their jobs.

I am increasingly seeing people with this predicament in my psychotherapy practice. One such patient has a marketing job that requires her to be on social media. In order to be successful, she was spending most of her day (and much of her night) creating and responding to posts on various platforms. She couldn't afford to quit her job, but her deepening depression stemming from an addiction to technology meant she was very dissatisfied with her life.

We know from research that social media sites and apps increase the release of dopamine in our brains, which gives us a jolt of pleasure. When we connect a behavior to our sense of pleasure, we want to scratch the itch repeatedly, and withdrawal is painful. But we also know from research that addictive behavior exacerbates loneliness and sadness.

As I pondered my patient's dilemma, I realized what I was hearing from her was very similar to what I hear from my patients who suffer from eating disorders (be it bulimia or compulsive overeating). In fact, with PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay and Amazon, technology's omnipresence also means our access to food is 24/7. We are not going back to the way of the landline or pay phones, any more than we are going back to curtailing store hours or delivery services. So we can apply the research done on eating disorders to dealing with addiction to social media.

Because we need to continue to consume food and social media, these dependencies can't be handled by the most effective means of ending addictions — going cold turkey. The feedback loop between our behavior and the part of our brain that responds to pleasure makes moderation very difficult to achieve. Few people can take one bite of a delicious chocolate cake and feel satisfied. Our hunger for more is powerful, and, as hard as it might seem, not taking the first bite can be easier than trying to stop after just one bite. I've had patients tell me that they recognize their helplessness in the face of food and wish they could totally give it up.

So. like patients who need to take control of their eating, could my patient use similar techniques to take control of her online life and start to feel better while keeping her job? Substituting the word "screen" for "food," I asked my client to assess her relationship to social media and screen use in general. For example: Is my relationship to social media healthy? Does it reflect my values? At the end of each day, how has my time on screens helped me improve myself? What is one modification I can commit to to bring about sustained change with screen time in my life? If I think of every megabyte as a bite of food, what percentage of what I consumed online today was empty calories?

As my client and I began to address these questions, she saw ways she could modify her behavior with screens and find mechanisms for setting limits. She needed to do that because, to change her emotional response to her online engagement, she first needed to go through withdrawal. We used cognitive behavioral techniques to address her irrational fear that being separated from her phone would mean she wouldn't know if there was an emergency. This mirrors patients' initial fears of going hungry if they don't have access to food at all times.

So she made her bedroom a screen-free environment. She bought an alarm clock to use instead of her phone. She no longer went to sleep with Netflix playing on her laptop. She stopped consuming Facebook posts as a way to stay connected with friends. She began to take a 24-hour break from all screens every month.

By making these changes, she started to feel in control of her life again, and her self-esteem improved. Delayed gratification entered her repertoire, which meant she was no longer a slave to instant gratification. And she had to create more fulfilling patterns of behavior to fill the social media void. She found her phone conversations with friends more satisfying than looking at their posts, and she was able to sleep better with no screens in her bedroom.

Once she regained control of screen time in her personal life, she was motivated to engage her employer in a conversation about setting limits on her online availability after hours. On the surface, her request was well received, but the jury is still out. She is waiting to see whether she continues to be promoted at work. There may be consequences for limiting her use of social media and her availability — but there are consequences for her not changing, as well.

Supersize portions of screen time are becoming normalized, with dire results. We talk about binge-watching shows as if there is no harm in it, when in fact binge behavior of any sort is unhealthy. Addiction is a complex phenomenon, and unfortunately recidivism is very high. But if we tame the beast of social media by moderating our diet of screen time, hopefully we can realign our priorities and live healthier lives.