Can you be 'addicted' to Facebook, Instagram? Experts share how to tell if your social media use is problematic.

·4 min read
Instagram was among a number of apps owned by Facebook that went down for several hours on Monday. The outage caused some people to reflect on just how much time they spend on social media. (Getty Images)
Instagram was among a number of apps owned by Facebook that went down for several hours on Monday. The outage caused some people to reflect on just how much time they spend on social media. (Getty Images)

Social media users collectively freaked out on Monday when Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp went down for hours. Facebook, which owns the platforms, later blamed a "faulty configuration change" for the outage, which inspired plenty of memes — and reflection about just how much time people spend on social media. 

"Didn't realize how addicted I was to scrolling through Instagram until it went down sheeesh," one person wrote on Twitter. "So Instagram has been down for like 2 hours and I didn't realize how many times I caught myself keep trying to use the app," another said. "Crazy how much we waste time scrolling through social media. That being said LMK when it's back and running." 

"I'm so addicted to instagram," someone else chimed in. "Keep clicking it, forgetting it's down."

While plenty of people were throwing around the terms "addicted" and "addiction" when talking about the social media platforms, it's tricky to actually call regular social media usage an "addiction," Erin Calipari, a professor and addiction specialist at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. Still, she says, some people definitely display "addictive behaviors" when it comes to using these platforms — and there's a reason for that. 

The creators of popular social media platforms have studied basic human behavior psychology to increase your engagement, she says. "Social media uses variable reinforcement," Calipari says. "When you engage, you're probably going to see something new. It's unpredictable, and that's exciting to people." 

Plenty of people kept on clicking into their Facebook and Instagram apps when the sites were down because they've just developed habits to do that regularly throughout their day, Calipari says.

Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that social media draws you in because "we all have a curiosity about others and what they are doing." 

"The idea that you can keep track of what family, current and past friends are doing is very attractive to our social interest," he says. People can also follow others who mirror their own interests and get their beliefs reinforced, which also draws you in, Yeager says. "Now you have all of this content that you can access from the comfort of your living room or pretty much anywhere on your computer, tablet or phone. This is the perfect recipe for vicarious-living addiction," he explains.

So how can you tell if your social media use is problematic? Dar Meshi, a social neuroscientist and assistant professor at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life that it's concerning if you have a "preoccupation" with social media when you're not using it or your mood changes when you use social media. "Other symptoms include conflict with others because of social media use, and when attempting to quit social media, individuals may experience withdrawal symptoms or even possibly relapse, returning to use these sites again," he says. 

How much your social media use interferes with other things you should be doing, like paying bills or getting work done, matters too, Yeager says. 

If you feel like your social media use is excessive, there are a few things you can do. Thea Gallagher, a Philadelphia-area psychologist and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, recommends trying to be mindful of how much you're looking at social media platforms and making a point to avoid them during your day. "Really take physical separation from your phone or other device at least for 20 minutes to a half hour each day," she says. 

Gallagher also suggests turning off social media notifications, so you're not getting pinged when someone likes or comments on a post. "Just be more intentional with the time you spend online," she says. You can even set timers when you click into a social media platform to allow yourself only a certain amount of time on it, Calipari says. 

If you've tried those things and you still feel like you're checking social media more than you should, Meshi says it's time for more dramatic action: "Simply try to abstain from using social media." Meaning, take a break. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter will still be there when you're ready to come back.

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