Q: I am a 7th grader working on an independent research project about whether using social media can be addictive and how using social media affects adolescent girls’ body image. What does the scientific research show? And how can I learn more about this?
~ Scrutinizing Social Media, Wellesley, MA
As a seventh grader, this is an important topic for you to research and to teach your friends about, since you are turning 13, the age at which you are legally able to be using social media. First, let’s address whether social media are “addictive”. We need to be careful about using stigmatizing terms such as “addiction” when discussing behaviors, such as using social media, as they are not exactly the same as addictions to substances, such as alcohol or drugs. While there are social media behaviors that can be compulsive and excessive, such as constantly checking updates, counting “likes” or changing what you have posted, even late into the night, they are qualitatively different. Physical changes occur in the body of a heroin or alcohol addict which cause them to need more of the substance all the time to feel okay and which cause them to be really sick and need medical intervention when they cannot get heroin or alcohol. The psychological need to be on social media more and more, and the anxiety that may occur when not online, are not physical and can be overcome without medical care. Nevertheless, there are many young people who have an attachment to their online lives, whether it be to social media or gaming, that is unhealthy and can cause them significant problems with school performance, social life, and even physical health. They need help to regain balance in their lives, but I am concerned that using the negative term “addiction”, will only lead to denial (most addicts don’t think they have a problem) and not seeking the care and support that they need.