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By now, you’ve probably heard lots of stories about the drug problem in America. There’s the worsening fentanyl crisis, of course. And there’s the opioid and prescription drug crisis. And, of course, there are the old standby illicit drugs that have been popular for decades. Cocaine, for example, remains popular today after it burst onto the scene during the party-fueled 1980’s.
But none of these is the drug of choice for the youngest generation, known as Generation Z. Instead, teens and young adults are grappling with social media and smartphone addiction. That’s right – clinicians and researchers are reporting that young teens suffer from the same type of addiction as someone addicted to alcohol or drugs, even if no drugs are involved. That’s because social media helps to activate the same pleasure centers in the brain that other addictions can. Thus, the race is always on amongst users to find “the next hit,” which is often just the next Instagram post or the next viral video on TikTok.
How social media addicts us
Even if you don’t buy completely into the idea that smartphone addiction is the same as, say, cocaine addiction, it’s possible to recognize the same tell-tale symptoms. For one, there are the sudden mood swings that can occur. There is a withdrawal from the physical world. There are obsessive behaviors that can result, like constantly pulling out your smartphone to see if there’s a new update from one of your friends. And who hasn’t taken their smartphone to bed? It just feels so much safer, knowing that you can wake up in the middle of the night to get that next fix without having to move.
And guess what? The big social media platforms do everything possible to feed this addiction. They send us alerts, chimes, pings, and updates, constantly reminding us to get online. They actively create our Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), and they do this by updating our news feeds so often that it can feel like we’re going to miss something big if we don’t just keep scrolling.
And, just to play with our minds just a little bit more, the big social media platforms have optimized their algorithms to deliver us exactly the type of content that will trigger emotional responses. Content is often polarizing for a reason. It gets you to click, and it gets you to react. The social media platforms call it engagement, and that’s what they want you to do: remain actively engaged, for as long as humanly possible.
In many ways, it feels like we’re all part of some kind of dystopian science lab experiment. We’re all lab rats looking for the next dopamine rush, unaware that the suits in Silicon Valley are watching us and studying us all the time, trying to figure out ways to keep us coming back for more by varying the dosages.
Time to break the social media addiction cycle
At the end of the day, we need to find some way to break this social media addiction cycle. Do we go after the users? Or do we go after the dealers? For now, it seems like the approach has been to go after the users, mostly by offering them social media “detox” options or improved counseling options for mental health. But maybe it’s time to go after the big social media cartels. That is, it’s time to go after the big tech companies in Silicon Valley that are fueling this addiction. We need real legislation in Washington to make sure that the big social media companies can’t ruin an entire generation.
Taking a big picture view, it’s a bit shocking to consider how much things have changed in just a single generation, thanks to the introduction of social media and smartphones. But now that the first social media generation has grown up, it’s possible to see the toll that social media has taken on the mental and physical health of the youngest members of society. Even if you don’t want to admit it, it sure seems like it’s time for a major change.