Social media addiction: Does it have to be a negative?

By Tiffany Korssen
Herald Sun
April 01, 2016
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I’M addicted to social media. There, I’ve said it, there’s no point sugar-coating it. As much as I hate to confirm the much-lamented stereotype, I am — ashamedly — just another gen-Yer who can’t keep their hands off their shiny smartphone.

When I go to parties with mates, I’m that exasperating person Snapchatting nine-second snippets of our sloppy dance moves.

When I go out to brekkie, I’m that cringe-worthy person painstakingly rearranging my plate of eggs to perform a photoshoot for my Instagram page.

I’m also “that friend” who prefers to watch videos of cats being terrified by cucumbers on my phone while everyone else is watching a DVD.

When I’m bored, uncomfortable or sad, my immediate reaction is to reach for my iPhone and aimlessly scroll through the silly drivel that finds its way to my newsfeed.

Countless cute cat-versus-dog videos and short documentaries on Facebook have saved me from awkward social events where I’ve felt otherwise compelled to evaporate into a wall or slide under a table.

Chatting to friends on messenger has even relieved my anxiety — you know the type of worry that keeps you awake late at night.

I know, I’ve heard it all before. I need to stop living in “La La Land” and I desperately need to get a real life, or at least some more real-life friends.

But other than eliciting a lot of eye-rolling from loved ones when I whip out my iPhone to take 36 pictures of the sunset, or to Facebook message my overseas friends while “watching” TV, I don’t think there’s anything overly negative, or self-destructive, about my addiction.

I have a dismal following of 400 people on Instagram; I have less than 200 friends on a very private Facebook account and about 15 close friends on Snapchat.

I don’t engage frequently with these platforms with the intention of becoming some sort of social media star.

And, as I continually reassure my concerned dad, it’s quite obvious I’m not the only one who lives with their smartphone glued to their palm.

Indeed, all you have to do is sit down for a meal at your local cafe and glance around
to see how many fellow diners are ensconced in some type of phone activity.

This year, Febfast, the campaign that raises money for disadvantaged youth by challenging Aussies to ditch a vice for a month, stopped offering a social media fast to participants, with take-up so low last year.

So, what makes social media so addictive?

University of Melbourne expert in new media and relationships Dr Lauren Rosewarne believes more “ordinary” people than ever are constantly checking in to social media sites.

And while she acknowledges that damaging, depression-inducing addiction involving social media use does exist, Rosewarne says our modern obsession with social networking is now mostly a mainstream and positive phenomenon that showcases the evolution of communication.

“Never before have we, as humans, had a way of communicating with one another that’s been so accessible and easy,” Rosewarne says.

“Humans are hardwired to socialise.

“Social media apps on smartphones allow us to talk with friends, family and acquaintances instantaneously, so it’s no wonder we enjoy doing it, we’re driven to do it.”

Rosewarne says there’s been hype about social media addiction and its potential for creating a new generation of vain, selfie-obsessed people since MySpace was invented about 15 years ago.

“But while it can make our narcissistic traits more visible, in reality our increasing use of social networking is a lot less negative than people might have feared,” she says.

“Because it’s so easy, it has taken over; it’s become our new default tool for socialising as well as our primary way to contact people.

“It’s now part of our hourly lives and a lot like breathing, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.

“So long as you can still function in the real world and hold down a job, switching to communicating primarily via social media — whether that is communicating via posting pictures to show friends where you’ve been or what you’ve done or via messaging — isn’t a bad thing. It’s all communication.

“It’s just a different and more streamlined way of doing something we’ve always done.”

In fact, as opposed to creating a culture of zombies who stay home to gaze at their glossy phone screens all day, Rosewarne argues social media can actually encourage the formation and fortification of real-life relationships.

“If you’re genuinely using it to stay in touch with friends and family overseas and to network with useful, positive people, it’s great,” she says.

“Between men and women in particular, it takes a lot of pressure off in a society where people are more and more conscious of not coming off too strong when flirting.

“And, while we’re not 100 per cent sure of how this will affect the way our minds might function in the future, our modes of communication have always evolved and will continue to do so … this is nothing new.

“The same hysteria and concern about anti-social behaviour and addiction surfaced when the radio was introduced to households.”

But some psychologists believe social media can be more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes.

Dr Aileen Alegado, a member of the Australian Psychological Society, says the issue of social media addiction is growing.

“The symptoms of addiction include, but are not limited to, chronic online activity and incessant checking of social media sites, characterised by the amount of time spent online, whether it be passive (‘liking’ statuses or posts, looking constantly at Instagram images or people’s profiles or incessantly refreshing the Facebook newsfeed) or active (posting status updates or pictures),” Alegado says.

She says some of the psychological problems that can arise from social media addiction include low self-confidence and a false sense of self and identity, as well as a lack of engagement in and enjoyment of everyday living.

Sam Marchetta knew he had a problem when a friend told him he may as well not have been invited to a party because he was always on his phone.

Under the name Selfie Sam, Marchetta had amassed more than 17,000 Instagram followers purely for posting selfies.

He was also very active on Twitter and Facebook, and thought he had his social media under control until it became obvious it had taken over his life. He posted five to 10 times a day on Facebook and Instagram.

A working psychologist, Marchetta realised his every day had to change and he was no longer living in the real world.

“I think for me it stepped over the line probably about two years ago,” Marchetta says. “I think it changed when Instagram became very popular, it was very easy to take a photograph and post it.

“I have to admit I really enjoyed the positive feedback, I think for me that became addictive.”

About to turn 40, Marchetta woke up one day last year with a goal — he wanted to completely detox from all social media for 40 days.

“That first day in particular was really challenging. I was thinking, what were people posting, what was I missing out on? I felt really disconnected, it was really tough.”

He filmed a video blog documenting the detox.

“I was pretty anxious. I remember watching one of the videos back and I was rocking back and forth. It was like I was physically withdrawing from an addiction, which was a real concern.”

Marchetta was such a prolific user of social media and had such a huge following that when he stopped, one friend thought he had died.

In the beginning, Marchetta was counting down the days until his detox was over. Then, after about two weeks, things suddenly began to change.

“I started to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I have to say, I realised any time there was quiet time, I was never actually really on my own. My spare time was filled with social media.”

His loved ones also noticed a huge difference.

“I definitely feel like I have reconnected with real people in real time, and for me that is a really good outcome,” Marchetta says. “I realised I was neglecting a lot of my friends and family, and when I was with them, I truly wasn’t with them.

“I think the comment that meant the most was from my eight-year-old niece, who said she liked that I wasn’t on my phone all the time when you play with me any more.”

Marchetta was enjoying his return to the real world so much that he continued the social media detox to 100 days. He now has some strict rules, and he has changed his Instagram mantra to Self Help Sam. He plans to do a detox at least one week a year.

“It can never take over my life again, the balance has to be right,” he says. “I probably only check it twice a day now.”

Marchetta did a one-week detox for the first week of this year, but found it difficult to find friends who could go a week without social media.

“Out of about 50 people who said they would join, only three lasted that I am aware of.”

Similarly, when Febfast introduced a social media cleanse in 2015, only 2.5 per cent of the 6110 participants took it up.

In September, the hashtag #facebookdown trended in Australia and around the world as people lit up Twitter to complain about the platform being offline. It happened twice in the same week. Earlier in the year, social media addicts faced their worst nightmare when Facebook, Instagram and dating app Tinder all went down during the peak hour commute in Australia.

The outages have made for hilarious Twitter posts around the world. As one user, Jenna Guillaume, tweeted: “But guys, if Twitter went down now and I lost all social media, I would probably actually die. #socialmeltdown2015.”

Other users joked that with Facebook down, they would have to send people text messages to let them know what they had eaten and how the moon looked.

Avid social media user and mum of three Emmylou MacCarthy, 36, believes there is misinformed negative hysteria about social media addiction.

MacCarthy’s private social media platforms act as cathartic tools where she can express herself and keep in touch with interstate family members.

She has opened up about her difficult struggles with depression on Facebook and has shared about her — often emotionally charged — weight-loss journey.

And she is well-acquainted with the modern buzzwords of social media addiction. But the South Melbourne woman says she has managed to perfect the art of having a positive phone-life balance.

Instead of being some insidious affliction, communicating mostly via social media is much like letter writing, only rapid, more frequent and larger-scale, she says.

“More than anything, it’s efficient. As a busy mum, it’s how I keep in touch with my friends when life is just too hectic to catch up face-to-face,” MacCarthy says.

“With losing weight and with personal issues, it’s always acted as a mechanism for keeping people I care about in the loop when there just isn’t a physical chance to do so.

“If you use social media to connect and network with positive like-minded people, you can also get a lot of uplifting energy … it definitely doesn’t have to take over your life, I think it can actually enhance it.”

However, MacCarthy is also aware there are some potential negatives of overusing social media.

When she first took home her eldest child, Sage, from hospital she was caught up in a whirlwind of excitement, posting besotted baby pictures on her “emmylou_loves” Instagram page. But after a few weeks of settling into her new life, things began to sour.

“At that particular point, being constantly tuned in wasn’t helpful as it made me take my focus away from settling into parenting and made me start to really miss my old, carefree life.

“Sometimes, the onslaught of images you’re exposed to and the constant barrage of information can get overwhelming and you do need to take a break and remind yourself that what you’re seeing of other people isn’t the whole picture. Often, they’re just surface snippets of the best of someone.”

MacCarthy says a three-month break from social media helped her get back on track and now, confident and in control of her social networking habits, she even works as a social media manager. She says she still schedules complete social media “detoxes” once a year.

“I think if anyone finds themselves feeling any type of negativity as a result of using social media — if they’re not able to enjoy the moment and switch off when necessary, if they feel as though they’re disengaged from their work or relationships, if they’re missing the little things, or getting stressed out — that’s when they need to step back and take a break, like I did.

“But if you can deeply understand the purpose of social networking and use it for good, there shouldn’t be any need to stop using it frequently.

“It’s all about your perspective.”

DR ROSEWARNE’S TIPS ON CONTROLLING SOCIAL MEDIA USE:

* USE social media with a positive mindset — communicate with a friend who lives far away, use it to network with like-minded people, or to form new connections with people or pages with similar interests to you.

* RESTRICT your use of social media — try using it for set times, like on lunchbreaks, or on the way to work on the train only.

* IF it’s all getting a bit too much, delete the apps from your phone to reduce accessibility and take a break.

Do you or someone you know feel depressed or anxious? Contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or at beyondblue.org.au

DR ALEGADO’S TIPS FOR MANAGING SOCIAL MEDIA

* BE clear on what you are using social media for, so you can optimise the benefits.

* INFORM yourself about security options — most sites have security options you can control so you can monitor who sees what you post. This will enable you to be in control of your interactions with others.

* USE social media in a positive way — take advantage of what information we are now able
to share and acquire online. Communicating with someone far away or with people with the same interests has never been easier.

* BE respectful of others — think carefully before posting other people’s personal information, including pictures, or making comments about them on your site. Stick to the rule that if you’re not willing to say it in person, don’t do
it online.

* RESTRICT when you use social media — try to set times, such as lunchbreaks only or at the end of the day if you find yourself spending too much time on it. You can opt to delete it from your phone, which makes it even less accessible.