Social media 'addiction' and relationships

The academic jury is still out regarding whether Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube and Twitter et al are addictive in the traditional sense, but the ongoing research evidence does suggest that something akin to this is happening. Therapeutic experience suggests that more clients are experiencing such media as complicating factors, and at times, the most significant contributor to the ‘problem’ when exploring difficulties in relationships.

So what constitutes an addiction? At its simplest, it is an apparent inability for someone to stop doing or using something because it will result in feelings of anxiety. There will usually be some sort of reward or reinforcement involved such that they feel better about themselves by using ‘it’, but that feeling better might only be because they stop feeling the negative effects of being denied access to the need ie there is some level of dependence. Often, there will also be some awareness of the less desirable consequences of ‘using’, but mechanisms will probably have been developed to negate or justify these.

The starting point with regard to social media use seems to be a general acceptance that it’s ‘harmless’, indeed, it is just the newest means of making and maintaining relationships with others. I am writing here about its potentially negative impact upon relationships however, and so the answer in this context is ‘yes it usually is harmless, but only if those important to you experience your attachment to your device in the same way’. The thing to notice is, ‘is it still a means to an end or has is it now become an almost habitual end in itself?’ How do those closest to you feel about your harmless meanderings? If your social media time seems to be negatively impacting real relationships with those close to you, then it would be wise to pay attention to what is happening in your relations with both social media and real people sooner rather than later.

Let us begin then with the premise that use of social networking platforms exists upon a continuum or graduated line between ‘I need it and cannot do without it’, and ‘it adds something to my life but it’s a non-essential nice-to-have’. Clarify your own level of use by asking and honestly answering questions such as, how do you feel if you cannot check your homepage, wall, feed etc. Is there a sense of anxiety because you might have missed something ‘important’? How often are you checking these pages?  Where and when will you check? How do you feel if your device is insufficiently charged or there is no connectivity? Will you overlook social norms or imposed rules such as at work to have a quick look? Given the choice of interacting with the person in the room with you or engaging with somebody ‘virtually’ via your device, what is your preference? Maybe it’s even got to the stage of one hand for the fork and the other to swipe your phone whilst at the dinner table, despite there being others that are sat there eating with you.

Also ask, what are the rewards that keep you coming back to social media? You feel connected to people you wouldn’t otherwise be. You feel better about yourself because others positively reinforce your being and your actions. Maybe it provides a sense of connection in a world in which you often feel disconnected. You may feel better understood by somebody whose relationship with you is solely digital with none of the encumbrances and demands of your real life. Perhaps it bolsters your self-esteem as other platform users vie to validate you through your latest posting. My question is though, are these benefits at the expense of the people and relationships in your real world?

One significant indicator of social media’s negative impact upon your real relationships is that excessive use will probably result in some mechanisms of justification, defence or denial. Perhaps you might say that it’s the best way of maintaining contact with your social circle. Maybe you tell those close to you that they’re being controlling, intrusive or disrespectful? You might simply deny that there is a ‘problem’, even when those closest to you are making it very clear that for them at least, there is. The first step if any of these factors resonate with you, is to acknowledge that something you’re choosing to do is having a negative impact upon your life and relationship. Perhaps the central question then is, what has changed in your real relationship such that you now feel that social media better addresses your emotional needs than your partner?

These are issues that you can discuss with the important people in your life now, and preferably before your relationship is excessively damaged by them. It may be that you need an impartial other to facilitate the necessary exploration and clarification – the aforementioned justification, rationalisation, defensiveness or denial will often get in the way when a couple attempt to address those difficulties without support. If social media seems to be a contributing factor to difficulties in your relationship though, that is something that needs to be talked about now. If it’s a problem for one of you then it’s a problem for both of you. Not communicating effectively is an issue because one or other of you will inevitably feel that they’re not being heard, or worse still, perhaps not even noticed. Filling the existential void of aloneness and isolation with social media has a potential to add to the emotional rift in real world relationship, that paradoxically the social media user is seeking to fill. Given what seems to be an increasing reliance on this form of personal interaction, consider talking about it openly and honestly now before it really does irreparably damage real world relationships with those you love.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Peter Fallon

Having served as an engineer in the Royal Navy for fourteen years, I went on to train initially as a social worker, and then as a psychotherapist. This has resulted in extensive experience of working with distressed adults in both the statutory and private sectors. UKCP registered… Read more

Written by Peter Fallon

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